Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt Review of LaBrava
The New York Times
October 7, 1983
JOE LABRAVA knows his way around, especially South Miami Beach and environs. He notices things. He’s tough and smart, though by no means ruthless, which is something that gets him in trouble now and then in Elmore Leonard’s latest novel (his 17th book, no less), ‘‘LaBrava.’’ Joe is a former Internal Revenue Service officer, Collection Division, and a former Secret Service agent who once did duty guarding Bess Truman at home in Independence, Mo. ‘‘Not even counting protective-detail in Mrs. Truman’s living room,’’ LaBrava reflects, ‘‘a life that sounded exciting was 80 percent boring.’‘
So in most respects, Joe LaBrava is fairly standard issue from the supply room of the tough-guy school of fiction. But Joe has retired from Government service now
and has taken up serious photography, if one can call serious the sort of pictures that prompt reviewers to write, ‘‘The aesthetic subtext of his work is the systematic exposure of artistic pretension.’’ But whatever the quality of his work, Joe LaBrava’s photography and his fascination with cinematic illusion are what keep Mr. Leonard’s new novel from being just another exchange of chicanery and nastiness.
Now this may seem a somewhat complicated thing to say about a novelist with all the moves that Mr. Leonard has, especially when he seems to have his punches more completely under control than in any of the half-dozen or so of his previous novels that I happen to have read. As usual, his dialogue is so authentic that it dances off the page, whether it’s Joe LaBrava talking, or his friend, old Maurie Zola, who owns beachfront real estate and remembers Miami when the right kind of people came down for the season. Now ‘‘they got video cameras mounted up on cement poles, close-circuit TV, so the cops can watch the muggings, the dope transactions, and not have to leave the stations.’‘
As usual, the characters flash on and off in multicolored neon: Paco Boza, who travels around in a wheelchair he stole from Eastern Airlines ‘‘because he didn’t like to walk and because he thought it was cool, a way for people to identify him’’ (’‘What does he do?’’ somebody asks LaBrava. ‘‘About $200 worth of cocaine a day.’‘); or Cundo Rey, a criminal-export from Cuba who, when he isn’t hot-wiring cars, spends his night- hours go-go dancing under a disco spotlight both for narcissistic gratification and the cash that the female patrons stuff into his leopard-skin underwear; or Jean Shaw, the slightly faded film-star friend of Maurie Zola’s who lives with the memories of the spider-woman roles that made her famous.
And the scam that forms the backbone of the novel’s plot is intriguingly mystifying. One sordid Miami Beach evening, LaBrava has a run-in with a sociopathic hulk named Richard Nobles, who takes his pleasure from beating up women who happen to catch his fancy. It soon develops that an extortion scheme is being aimed at Jean Shaw, Maurie Zola’s film-star friend, whom LaBrava has met and gotten sexually involved with, though he isn’t sure whether it’s her he desires or the cinematic image he fell in love with when he was 12 years old. A crudely typewritten note informs Jean Shaw that if she wants to avoid being killed, she must simply pay $600,000 to the extortionist, according to written instructions that will shortly follow.
Now here comes what ultimately makes ‘‘LaBrava’’ unusual as a thriller. It’s obvious to everyone that it has to be Nobles who is behind the extortion scheme. So all LaBrava and the police have to do is catch him making a wrong move, and the threat to Jean Shaw will be ended. But is Nobles really as stupid as he appears to be, or is someone manipulating him into being a decoy? And what about LaBrava’s dawning memory of the resemblance the scam bears to the plot of one of Jean Shaw’s less well-remembered movies? Can it be that LaBrava, hung up as he is on photography, is not only in love with an image but is caught as well in a web spun by a cinematic fantasist?
I’m afraid I’m making ‘‘LaBrava’’ sound a little on the French side, something like the fever-dream of a semiologist. But please don’t be put off. What’s unusual about ‘‘LaBrava’’ is that no matter how complicated its implications grow, it remains firmly rooted in its realistic milieu. And despite all the double-crossing mayhem it metes out, nobody gets hurt who doesn’t deserve to. The only innocent victim is the dream of Florida as a golden sunset for the old and infirm to fade peacefully into. But then ‘‘LaBrava’’ isn’t the first book in which Elmore Leonard has blasted that dream to smithereens. Nor for that matter will it be his last.