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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Donald Westlake Reviews LaBrava

The Washington Post
November 13, 1983
By DONALD E. WESTLAKE

imageELMORE LEONARD is an awfully good writer, of the sneaky sort; he’s so good, you don’t notice what he’s up to. The unwary have compared him with George V. Higgins, I guess because there’s so much dialogue in a Leonard novel, and so little he said and she said, but the differences run deep. Higgins is a scientist, dissecting the scene, showing us microscope slides of his observations, while Elmore Leonard is a romantic, rooting around among his specimens, finding the humanity behind the glib dialogue. And between scientist and romantic, what’s a novelist supposed to be, anyway?

The Washington Post
November 13, 1983
By DONALD E. WESTLAKE

imageELMORE LEONARD is an awfully good writer, of the sneaky sort; he’s so good, you don’t notice what he’s up to. The unwary have compared him with George V. Higgins, I guess because there’s so much dialogue in a Leonard novel, and so little he said and she said, but the differences run deep. Higgins is a scientist, dissecting the scene, showing us microscope slides of his observations, while Elmore Leonard is a romantic, rooting around among his specimens, finding the humanity behind the glib dialogue. And between scientist and romantic, what’s a novelist supposed to be, anyway?

If you answered romantic, have I got a book for you. LaBrava is a mean-streets romance, laconic and bitter- sweet, so thoroughly a film noir in novel form that a 25-year-old Hollywood film noir is itself at the very center of the plot. (A plot I can say hardly anything about, except that it involves murder and extortion and a confidence swindle, and neither the perpetrators nor the victims are always who you think they are. There; I’ve told you too much already.)
LaBrava does have the dialogue, of course, angling off the cushions like a cueball loaded with backspin. “Jerry wasn’t the brightest guy I ever married,” says the ex-movie star, Jean Shaw, who once co-starred opposite the likes of Robert Mitchum and Robert Taylor but who is now retired alone in a Miami Beach condo with her memories and her videocassettes, which include the movie at the heart of this novel. Defining her former career, she says, “Half the scripts I read had Jane Greer’s prints all over them.” Her last movie, we’re told, was Treasure of the Aztecs, co-starring Audie Murphy and Farley Granger. Time to get out of that business.

Then there’s Sgt. Hector Torres, the cop who tries but fails to figure out what’s going on here, about whom Leonard writes, “He always wore a coat and tie—his men did too—because he would never speak to the relatives of a deceased person in shirt-sleeves.” And 80-year-old Maurice Zola, who either manages the Della Robbia Hotel in South Miami Beach or possibly owns it, a guy who had a lot of jobs over the years—“In ‘32, when I worked for the septic tank outfit and wrestled alligators on the weekends? It was because I had the experience of being married to my first wife”—and whose line of snappy patter, appropriately enough, reaches back to even earlier than film noir: “I spent most of my dough on booze, broads and boats and the rest I wasted.”
These characters, and others—a big mean redneck from north Florida weirdly but convincingly allied with a shifty little petty crook from Cuba, a drug dealer who travels around in a wheelchair stolen from Eastern Air Lines because it gets him more respect than a bicycle, an amoral but good-looking alley cat of a girl who makes a living selling rejuvenation lotions to the bluehaired old ladies on the hotel porch rocking chairs—all shift and shine and grin and do their best against a setting Elmore Leonard has made his own.

Within the last generaton, Miami has undergone a radical change. No longer the New Yorkers’ vacation spot, less importantly the northerners’ retirement home, Miami has turned into something rich and strange, the unofficial capital of Latin America. The landowning Central American aristocrats, fleeing their overdue revolutions, have more and more brought themselves and their money and their servants and their attitudes to south Florida, where they mix uneasily with the nouveau riche drug entrepeneurs from Colombia and Peru and the oher dream factories to the south. At the opposite economic extreme, starving Haitians in flight from the Duvalier madhouse stagger ashore from their foundering boats, and when Fidel Castro opened his nation’s doors to eager emigrants a few years ago he opened his prison doors as well; the sweepings of the prison at Cambinado del Este joined the exodus to the promised land: Miami, in the sun.

The story played out in this tainted sunshine is at once both simple and complex. In fact, the same story appears, in variants, four times in the book, once as a screenplay which in a brief flashback Harry Cohn (then head of Columbia Pictures) rejects because, as he says, “You mean the broad wins?” Sometimes she does. The broad is the ex-movie star, Jean Shaw, and the hero is Joe LaBrava, who gives the book its title and its point of view and its moral position. Leonard shows us, clearly and convincingly, how in a dozen years Joe LaBrava has moved from being a young accountancy graduate of Wayne State through stints with the IRS and the Secret Service (he was a guard at Mrs. Truman’s house for a while) to being the guy who takes the photos of drug-deal payoffs to being a guy who just likes to take pictures to who he is now: an artist-photographer, recording the half-spoiled sights of this new florid Baghdad. Joe has moved from mathematics to romance, and he isn’t going back. The main thing he’s brought with him on his journey (apart from his Secret Service training, which comes in handy from time to time) is the unfaded memory of the first time he ever fell in love; he was 12, at the movies, and she was on the screen, a star named Jean Shaw.

Check it out.

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