Saturday, December 11, 2010

LaBrava by Elmore Leonard

LaBrava by Elmore Leonard, 1983

It's always a pleasure to discover an author with an entirely original, distinctive writing style and a quirky way of freshening old tropes. Elmore Leonard's two main genres are Westerns and crime novels, two genres that are well known for hackneyed devices and cliched storytelling.

Leonard doesn't go for that. He writes fast-paced, dialogue-heavy novels that are completely his own in tone and content. Take any paragraph out of any of Leonard's mature novels, and he will be instantly recognizable. At his best, he's a wild breath of fresh air, at his worst he gives you light, entertaining reading.

LaBrava ranks among the best of the Leonard novels that I've read. The dialogue sizzles, the characters pop and the plot is a coherent, twisty thrill ride. As always, Leonard creates a world and a prose style so vivid and unique that it could only be his own.

When he was twelve, Joe LaBrava fell in love with femme fatale movie actress Jean Shaw. Now an ex-Secret Service agent turned photographer living in a Miami hotel, LaBrava runs into Shaw, who's being menaced by a couple of mysterious thugs. It's up to him to save his boyhood crush from her enemies, but like the characters she played on the silver screen, Jean Shaw may not be what she seems.

In classic Leonard style, the villains are more interesting than the heroes. LaBrava gives us two excellent ones: redneck security guard Richard Nobles and deadly Cuban go-go dancer Cundo Rey. Leonard is always comfortable writing villains and the segments from Nobles' and Cundo's points of view are some of the strongest in the novel.

LaBrava himself is a pretty solid main character, too, although he gets upstaged by Nobles, Cundo and Franny Kaufman, a girl with wild hair who lives at his hotel. Leonard has an incredible gift for character and dialogue; nearly all of the major players in LaBrava are memorable in some way.

If Leonard tends to have a fault, it's his plots. Generally, they're either too loose and unstructured or they're too structured and overly predictable. LaBrava strikes a nice balance. The story moves swiftly, keeps you guessing and delivers one major shock mid-book that catapults the novel to even higher tension. So what if the climax is a bit expected? This is definitely one of Leonard's most tightly-plotted novels.

His prose remains a gift. Leonard ignores all the rules of punctuation and grammar to get the story told, and he does it without seeming pretentious. Other writers attempting his style would seem like authors deliberately trying to be "experimental" or "cutting-edge." Not Leonard. He is simply telling the story in a direct, true-to-life way. From his pen drop gems like "I see 'em come in with no socks on, I know they've got a portfolio full of social commentary." There's such a striking combination of wit and realism in his writing.

There was a discussion when LaBrava went around the block from Ocean Drive to Collins and headed south to Fifth Street to get on the MacArthur Causeway. Maurice said, we're going north, what do you want to go south for? Why didn't you go up to Forty-first street, take the Jessica Tuttle? LaBrava said, because there's traffic up there on the beach, it's still the season. Maurice said, eleven o'clock at night? You talk about traffic, it's nothing what it used to be like. You could've gone up, taken the Seventy-ninth Street Causeway. LaBrava said, you want to drive or you want me to?--- (page 11)

The novel's ending is fairly satisfying, if a little truncated-feeling. Another few pages of wrap-up would have been welcome, but that's not Leonard. He rarely has much falling action; he prefers to wrap things up at the climax.

In short, LaBrava is another excellent novel from Leonard, probably one of the finer ones of his that I've read. It's a highly original story of crime that's neither a mystery nor a thriller, but something all its own. And Elmore Leonard can write a line of dialogue like practically no other author.

NEXT UP: Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, a popular author of "cosy mysteries"

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