Elmore Leonard’s Crimes of Conscience

Every once in a while, Elmore Leonard steps back from the screwball crime stories that made him famous and gives us a book with a conscience.  These are books that tackle crimes against humanity.  They take outrages such as the genocidal war in Rwanda, the terrors of guerrilla warfare at the hands of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the embarrassment of U.S. political support for the death squads of the Dominican Republic back in the 1960s, and put a human face on them.  We meet characters we like, anti heroes we can’t help but root for, and they show us the horror of war in a way that newspaper headlines just can’t equal.


Leonard’s knack for characterization is the reason why his fictional worlds pack so much more punch than the real world headlines.  We can scan past issues of the New York Times for the rapes and beheadings and burning villages the Contras left in their wake, or we can see video footage of the race wars in Rwanda on CNN, the millions of starving refugees pushed on the tides of ancient tribal warfare, and walk away shaking our heads in disgust, but we don’t take anything away from the encounter, except maybe a fleeting sense of unease.  The real accomplishment of good fiction is to make you feel haunted, vicariously, by the problems of a particular character’s tortured past and uncertain future.  You care because some one you know has been through it.


But don’t make the mistake that Leonard is leading us off into left field.  Each of the books that follow is classic Elmore Leonard.  They are by turns funny and terrifying, and always exciting.  We meet good guys who aren’t exactly good, sexy dames who are way too hot to handle, bad guys so odd and ready to double and triple cross each other that you just can’t wait for the next time they appear, and of course dialogue that absolutely sizzles.  These are books with something to say about man’s inhumanity to man, but they want to play with you while they say it.  Think of them as sugar coated pills.


Now that’s the potatoes, let’s get on with the meat…


Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard.  Arbor House, 1982.


Meet George Moran.  George is a former native of Detroit and ex-Marine who not so many years ago stormed into Santo Domingo and did a little house to house fighting with the locals.  These days though, he owns and manages the Coconut Palms Resort Apartments in Miami, where his days are spent taking care of a few regular guests and watching the bikinis glide by.  As Cat Chaser opens, George and another former soldier named Nolan Tyner are hanging out by the pool.  Turns out, these two nearly shot each other in a little friendly fire incident during the initial landing in Santo Domingo all those years ago.  These days, Tyner is a full time alcoholic and a part time private investigator, and he’s doing a little snooping on some of George’s regulars.


Things pick up immediately when George runs into an old flame named Mary de Boya, who just so happens to be married to a former torture expert from a Dominican death squad.  The torture expert is living in Miami now, making a living as a real estate entrepreneur and drug smuggler.  Mary is unhappy, it seems, and still goes down to the Dominican Republic every once in a while for the polo matches.  George is down there too, but he’s looking for a girl who shot at him from a rooftop back in his Jarhead days.  He thinks maybe, by talking to her, he can get some closure on his past.  He and Mary share a night of raw passion together in a hotel with no air conditioning, and leave for Miami recklessly in love.


Turns out Mary’s husband, the torture expert, Andres de Boya, has got a million bucks stashed away in a secret compartment beneath his bed for a rainy day.  George and Mary hatch a plan to get away with it, and so begins a series of twists and turns that take the two lovers into a shark pool of con men and mob enforcers.


One of those enforcers, a man named Jiggs Scully, is perhaps the best of the many bad guys in the Leonard library.  He’s like that uncle your mom never wanted you to talk too highly of.  At the risk of making mother cringe, in fact, Scully covers the cost of admission all by himself.  He’s that much fun.  Here’s a good example.  This is Scully trying to convince George to give him the manager’s key to one of the Coconut Palms apartments:


“That’s correct,” Scully said, “I’m a consultant…  I advise people on business matters, act as a go-between, bring people together that want to make deals…things like that.  You want to know any more, come by my office, we’ll have a coffee sometime.  Okay?  Right now I’m going to see Mr. Pradi.  Where you come in–I’m gonna knock on his door, he don’t open it then I might have to kick it in.  I mean the business I got with him is that pressing.  So you can give me a key and maybe save yourself a door.  What do you think?”


But Cat Chaser’s real emotional power comes from George and his quest to reconcile himself with his past.  A lot of things went wrong down in Santo Domingo, and George is powerless to change most of them.  In fact, there’s not really anything he can do to change any of it.  All he can really do is try to figure out what happened to that girl who shot at him from the rooftop so many years ago.  Maybe, through her, he can reassemble himself, figure out how the man he is today became so fractured.


George is, in many ways, the classic Elmore Leonard leading man.  He’s middle aged, staring forty in the face.  He’s never been an angel, a true good guy (after all, he’s sleeping with a married woman and plotting with her to steal her husband’s fortune), but he nonetheless has a moral code that keeps him on an even keel.  George is also at a crossroads.  He’s stuck between a past that wrecked a lot of lives and a future that lurks around a blind curve.


What sets him apart, what makes him a hero worthy of the leading role, is the fact that he’s willing to confront the past.  He has a deep inner need to understand the consequences of his actions in a forgotten war, and his situation in many ways parallels the questions the rest of America is afraid to ask about our nation’s role in distant corners of the globe.


Bandits by Elmore Leonard.  William Morrow & Company, 1987.


Now, from the “interventionist action” in Santo Domingo, let’s jump forward about twenty years.  It’s the 1980s, and down in Nicaragua, those dirty communists the Sandinistas are in power.  The rebels, the Contras, are the, er, good guys.  Sort of.  Take away the machete massacres in the leper hospitals, the rapes, the beheading of pregnant mothers and children, the burning of entire villages, and you can safely say they’re the good guys.  In fact, a Contra colonel has come to New Orleans with a bona fide letter from President Reagan saying so.


The colonel has come on a fund raising tour of the South.  He’s courting wealthy business men, telling them if all you can give is a hundred thousand dollars then that’s okay.  Hey, it’ll only buy one gunship, and the enemy has a whole air force of them, but that one helicopter gunship…we’ll name it after you.


Of course, what the colonel has left out is that he’s also in town to track down and kill his former girlfriend, the one who might possibly have given him leprosy.


Oh, and he also has this little plan to steal the five million dollars he expects to raise from the American business men of New Orleans.


Enter Jack Delaney, a former jewelry thief and male model, who after a short stay in the Angola State Prison, is working for his brother-in-law Leo at Mullen & Sons, a New Orleans mortuary.


Jack hates picking up dead lepers from the hospital.  Hey, who doesn’t?  Then one day Leo tells him to pick up Sister Lucy from the homeless shelter.  She’s going with you to the hospital to pick up a young girl from Nicaragua who has just died of leprosy.  How much worse can it get?


Fortunately, this is an Elmore Leonard novel, and the nun turns out to be a scorching beauty.  And she’s not really a nun.  She wears skin tight Calvin Klein jeans and smokes a cigarette like she’s…well, let’s just say she smokes cigarettes and leave it at that.


Oh, and one more twist in Jack’s world.  Turns out the dead leper, she’s not really dead.  She’s the colonel’s ex-girlfriend, and there’s no danger of any of her limbs falling off any time soon…that is, unless the colonel finds her.


Throw in a geriatric bank robber whose only mission in life now that he’s out of prison is to get some tail–oh, and a blowjob too; he hears even nice girls are doing that these days–and a former cop who somehow ended up on the wrong side of the law, and you’ve got the ingredients for a wild heist caper.


The real twist in this book is that it’s not the leading man who makes the real change.  Jack Delaney does make a change, don’t get me wrong, but he does it primarily because of the changes he sees in Sister Lucy.  She literally changes into a different person every time he meets her, and this is really why you read an Elmore Leonard book, to see the fireworks he makes out of characters.  You truly see the changes that Jack sees in her.  Sister Lucy, with the possible exception of Karen Sisco from Out of Sight, is undoubtedly the best female characterization in Leonard’s works.  Through her, we not only see a person on the verge of becoming someone new, reinventing themselves in a truly magnificent way, but we also see the powerful human need to take sides, to be a part of the world.


The things Sister Lucy has seen would scar anybody, and they’ve certainly left their mark on her.  The difference with her though is that she is willing to do something about it.  She has seen the war down there, the one nobody really knows much about, and knows what side she needs to be on.  For her, stealing the colonel’s five million dollars is not just a con, not just a path to fast money, but a moral imperative.  The question is:  Can she convince a gang of former cons that stealing five million dollars is more than a good score, that it’s actually God’s work?


Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard.  Delacorte Press, 2000.


In case you haven’t already found this out for yourself, there’s a formula to most of Leonard’s book.  You take one likeable guy approaching middle age, one slightly younger, and usually gorgeous, lady on a mission, put em together, then throw a bunch of bad guys at them and see who rises to the top.  Pagan Babies fits that pattern perfectly.


Let’s start in Rwanda.  Father Terry Dunn, who doesn’t quite fit the classical model of a Catholic priest, takes confession out on the lawn, under a shade tree behind his church.  He can’t do it inside because the church has become a tomb for the bodies of forty-seven men, women, and children, victims of the latest round of killings in an ancient tribal war.  The bodies are slowing turning to leather, and they’ve stained the furniture with gore.  Their killers are wandering free and flaunting it in the village down the road, comfortably outside the scope of the local law, such as it is.  Unable to take the insult, Father Dunn decides to become an instrument of heavenly justice and kills the four thugs.  But of course being an instrument of heavenly justice can be a bit awkward in Africa, and by the end of Chapter 1, we find Father Terry Dunn back in Detroit, where he fled a federal tax fraud indictment several years before.


Back in Detroit, and living with his brother and his family while he figures out his tax fraud problems and raise a little cash for the orphans back in Rwanda, Father Dunn meets Debbie Dewey, a hot little number fresh out of prison for trying to run her former fiancée down with a Ford Escort.  Debbie’s dream is to be a stand up comic.  And also to get the $67,000 her fiancée stole from her back again.  Debbie and Terry hit it off in a big way, and soon their mutual money making schemes begin to merge into a plan to rip off the last of the great Detroit Mafia leaders, Tony Amilia.


The set up is there for another classic Elmore Leonard crime drama, but unfortunately, Pagan Babies doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of a tried and true formula.  I think there are a couple of reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is the dark mood this novel sets.  Almost every Leonard novel, with the possible exception of his early pulp westerns, read like a rollicking good time, a rollercoaster of a good time.  But from the very opening paragraph, Pagan Babies lets you know that there are some truly horrific costs to be paid, and those costs are being paid by innocents half way around the globe.  Not even Debbie’s stand up routine on the problems of prison life can really overcome the dark mood Leonard establishes early on.


Part of the problem with this book, I think, is that the real bad guys, the forces behind the genocide, never enter the picture.  We meet instead a motley cast of dimwitted hitmen and ailing gangsters.  They are bad guys, true, but they seem like straw men, standing in for the real evil.  The book feels like it should have taken place entirely in Africa, the plot to dupe Tony Amilia a mere backstory for the real issue, which is confronting the genocide.  The real story seems to start in the last chapter, when a changed Father Dunn returns to Rwanda.


Father Dunn has an awful lot in common with Sister Lucy from Bandits.  Both are latter day Robin Hoods, stealing from major league criminals and giving the money to the downtrodden in distant lands.  But more importantly, neither one is really a member of the Catholic clergy.  Both characters are emerging from cocoons, in the process of becoming something different.  They both seem to be shrugging off the conventions of religion and developing a new understanding of what it means to do God’s work in the world.  The refreshing thing about both characters, and also a mark of Leonard’s gift as a writer, is that neither throws this new understanding back at the reader in a didactic, preachy way.  You get your dose of morality, but it tastes good going down.     

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