Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Scam, novel fall short

Latest Elmore Leonard tour de force has too many laughs, not enough story

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cons, good ones, live and die on details. So do con men.

        The lies are wrapped so tightly around the truth that the deception becomes the reality. Else the rube is going to figure out the scam. And it doesn't matter how ambitious the scheme, how meticulous the planning if the rube figures it out.

        It's a subtle thing. Say you're a sometime preacher trying to milk $250,000 out of a mob boss under the guise of helping Rwandan orphans. You've got a plan and the moxie to pull it off.

        It should work beautifully. Problem is, it doesn't. And all of Elmore Leonard's wit and style can't save his newest crime thriller, Pagan Babies.

        In a lot of ways, Mr. Leonard is a victim of his own criminal- caper successes. He has done so well at delivering the goods that close just doesn't make it.

        Like an aging con artist, Mr. Leonard has become so polished he has lost sight of some of the details. He still turns a wicked phrase, makes quirky characters believable and delivers a fast-paced read. He can almost make a believer out of you. Almost.

        The book opens with a blistering scene of retribution in a Rwandan village, where Father Terry Dunn has been hearing confessions of genocide. His church has become a tomb for the bodies of 47 men, woman and children, who have been left to rot where they were cut down five years ago, murdered while Father Dunn said Mass. The bodies, a testament to the victors of tribal war.

        The first 40 pages come off like one of Mr. Leonard's earlier works; gritty and angry with an almost claustrophobic intensity. He drops you onto a bar stool close enough to smell banana beer on the breath of the guy sitting next to you.

        These scenes are bereft of the slick, dark comedy Mr. Leonard has turned into a personal franchise. And in them are the visages of earlier Elmore Leonard heros: The melon picker pushed too far in Mr. Majestyk, the relentless skip-tracer in Unknown Man No. 89, the straight-ahead, no-nonsense focus of Stick.

        Even the setting of the book is a throwback, with Motor City grime replacing the South Beach glitz Mr. Leonard made infamous.

        But once out of the jungle, Mr. Leonard quickly reverts to his contemporary — and more comfortable — style. He hooks up Father Dunn with an ex-felon turned stand-up comic named Debbie Dewey. She has plans to get even with her ex-husband, who scammed her out of $67,000.

        Together, the wayward priest and the divorcee with a grudge come up with a score that could leave the ex-husband con man paying penance to the mob and supporting a whole bunch of pagan babies in Rwanda. Toss in a hit man with a kind of Yogi Berra logic and the plot starts to feel a little too familiar.

        As the layers of deception are peeled back, the book loses its luster. The con seems to be less important to characters vying for laugh space amidst the 263 pages. And yes, it is funny, but that doesn't make it good.

        The book wraps up with with a decent payoff and a message of uneasy redemption. It has enough of an edge to recall earlier novels by Mr. Leonard. Unfortunately, the trip back to the jungle isn't enough to make you completely forget you're reading a book.

        That's enough truth to spoil a novel deception. Wait for the paperback. Else you might feel like you've been taken.


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