Elmore Leonard's first novel was a western, and he's been writing them ever since.
This is the same Elmore Leonard who hit the best-seller lists in 1985 with "Glitz," a gritty, violent, wickedly funny tale of a Florida cop who goes north to chase down the Atlantic City mobsters who killed his former girlfriend.
That was a western, too, as is "Pronto," Mr. Leonard's 31st and newest novel. In it, Harry Arno, a 66-year-old Miami Beach bookie (the author turned 66 last year), finds himself double-crossed by his Mafia employers and the FBI, and flees to Italy, with a relentless U. S. Marshal and a Sicilian hit man in pursuit.
Mr. Leonard's legions of fans would point out that these and nearly every novel of his since 1974's "Mr. Majestyk" (which became a mean revenge movie starring Charles Bronson) are crime novels. Crime novels differ from mysteries in that there is precious little mystery in them: After a few pages you have a pretty good idea who the bad guy is, what he wants to do, and why the good guy has to stop him.
The suspense comes not from finding out whodunit and why, but in reliving the timeless confrontation between good and evil, in chase scenes, shoot-outs, macho slugfests and, especially in Elmore Leonard, tough-guy (and, sometimes, tough-gal) dialogue that is so purely rendered it reads as if transcribed by FBI surveillance tapes.
Yet, if you change Mr. Leonard's South Florida, Detroit and New Orleans settings to the old West, take his chase scenes out of battered Buicks and put them on horseback, and relocate his gunfights to Dodge City or near the OK Corral, you discover that what makes him so compulsively readable is his clever adaptation of the western genre conventions to the modern crime novel. The settings change, the plots twist, but Mr. Leonard's books contain the western's essential American myth moral struggle working itself out against a dangerous, morally ambiguous frontier.
His heroes are male, usually in their late 30s or 40s, typically cops or retired law enforcement personnel, who know how to go one-on-one with tough guys, but would rather not. It's the bad guys (Mr. Leonard has at least two black hats in each novel) that won't leave them alone, provoking them reluctantly to action.
Mr. Leonard started out writing westerns -- "Hombre," his most famous, was filmed with Paul Newman playing a laughably stiff American Indian, whose Byronic sense of honor is threatened by all kinds of "civilized" sleaze bags. But he has been writing his "western" crime novels for 20 years ("Touch," a religious parable about a psychic healer, is the only exception).
Since the success of "Glitz," Mr. Leonard has become the standard against which crime writers -- both the new generation of Leonard-manques, and the guys who have been doing it longer and, some might argue, better -- measure themselves. A half-dozen novels of his have been filmed.
The last seven books have been national best sellers that, for all their escapist, melodramatic conventions, have been highly praised for the deft plotting, wry humor, lean vernacular prose and harrowingly unromanticized depictions of the criminal world and the repulsive denizens that inhabit it. Such novels as "LaBrava," "Stick" and "Fifty-two Pick-Up" have become genre classics, and you'll never find a better grab-you-by-the-throat opener than in "Freaky Deaky," when a smart-alecky phone call informs a pompous mob kingpin that the dynamite hidden under the chair he's sitting on won't blow him through the roof -- as long as he stays in the chair.
"Pronto" doesn't have such a bang-up beginning, and it takes a )) while for the book's true hero to emerge. The trouble with Harry Arno, the shadowy Miami Beach bookie, is that he's been skimming too much money for nearly 30 years from his sports betting operation. He's salting it away in a Swiss bank account, hoping to retire with his girlfriend, ex-stripper Joyce Patton, to Rapallo, an Italian Riviera town where Arno was stationed during World War II.
Alas, Murphy's is the only law that isn't broken in Elmore Leonard novels. The FBI coincidently stages a scam to make Arno's mob boss, the grotesquely fat Jimmy "Jimmy Cap" Capotorto, suspicious of Arno's honesty. Jimmy Cap dispatches an inexperienced hit man, but Arno manages to gun him down in the parking lot behind his South Beach hotel.
The gunplay brings Arno to the annoying attention of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a Southern-fried hick who sports a Stetson. A few years back, Arno gave Givens the slip when Givens was accompanying Arno to testify in a criminal trial. Givens has a feeling that Arno's about to slip out on him again.
Arno does, and the race is on, between Givens, who tracks Arno to Italy, and Tommy Bitonti -- a k a Tommy Bucks, a k a the Zip -- a menacingly macho Sicilian assassin who is accompanied by Nicky Testa, a craven, iron-pumping, American-born wise-guy wannabe.
In the same way that pop songs become interesting as variations on a formula, "Pronto's" most enjoyable modification is Givens, whose bumbling gentility masks a courageous, quick-drawing gunslinger with iron nerves and the self-sacrificing morals of a saint. He's the closest Mr. Leonard has come to a classic western good guy, and the author uses him to add a touch of parody to the plot. The climactic shoot-out comes right out of "High Noon," although it's played sitting down in a sidewalk cafe.
"Pronto" isn't quite the streamlined thriller machine of "Fifty-two Pick-Up." The pacing stalls in places and Mr. Leonard doesn't get deep enough into the Zip's skull for us to accept the Sicilian's Old World code of honor and respect on which so much of the plot depends.
The settings in and around Rapallo have a guidebook superficiality to them, and it's tough to believe that a street-smart sharpie like Harry Arno would be mysteriously obsessed with Rapallo because he met the imprisoned American poet Ezra Pound there during World War II.
Still, "Pronto" contains plenty of the hot-blooded dialogue, macho horn-butting, glimpses into the criminal underworld, coy plot twists and all-too-sudden shocks of violence that we expect, and come to adore, in Leonard novels. It also continues a trend of Mr. Leonard's later years, of including strong female characters who are more than mere sex objects or femme fatales. You'll read it in one or two sittings and wonder how you'll kill the time until Mr. Leonard's next novel comes out.
Mr. Kent's crime novel, "Down by the Sea," was published recently by St. Martin's Press. He lives in Philadelphia.
Author: Elmore Leonard
Length, price: 265 pages, $21.95