by Elmore Leonard
A review by Charles Taylor
Elmore Leonard should always write love stories and not just because the new
Mr. Paradise is his best novel since Out
of Sight. Reading Mr. Paradise, I realized that my favorite Leonard
books Out of Sight, Split
Man #89 and Rum
Punch (the basis for Tarantino's Jackie Brown) all have a strong,
burgeoning love story at their core. As a writer who eschews sentimentality, Leonard
can write about romance without getting sappy. And because his leading characters
are almost always past their youth (or if not, feel that they are), the men and
women who fall for each other in his books have learned something about the satisfactions
to be found in compromise. Sex isn't earth-shattering in Leonard's novels; it's
more like a sensual homecoming: His lovers find that their temperaments fit as
well as their bodies.
The lovers in Mr. Paradise are Frank Delsa a Detroit homicide detective
investigating the murders of an elderly local bigwig and his young lingerie-model
mistress during an apparent home invasion and the mistress's roommate, Kelly,
another lingerie model who was in the house at the time of the killings. How
Kelly came to be there is one of Leonard's loopy comic touches: The dead old
lech liked to watch videotapes of Michigan college football games while topless
cuties in cheerleader costumes chanted pornographic cheers on either side of
his big-screen TV.
What links Delsa, a widower 10 years Kelly's senior, and the young model is
that they're both possessed of a sardonic competence with finely tuned bullshit
detectors, they're not easily scared and can take care of themselves. (Delsa
is as cool as it's possible to be for a guy who wears a duffel coat with wooden
toggles.) As was apparent from Out of Sight, Leonard has a feel for the
wisecracking, no-nonsense quickness that drew lovers together in the romantic
film comedies of the '30s. The growing attraction between Delsa and Kelly has
the casual, disrespectful, anti-romantic attitude that is, in some ways, the
most romantic approach of all.
What distinguishes Mr. Paradise from the relationships in other
Leonard books is that here he hasn't copped out and refused us a happy ending.
It's qualified, yes, but happy. In other Leonard books, you could tell that
his decision to keep his lovers apart sprang from a determination not to fall
into sentimental convention. But that determination felt like a sop to hardboiled
convention. There was something a little churlish in Leonard's parting his lovers
(which is why it was so smart of Scott Frank, in his screenplay of Out of
Sight, to rewrite the novel's ending and suggest that the George Clooney
and Jennifer Lopez characters would find a way to be together).
A reviewer who has written about more than one Leonard novel risks repeating
himself because Leonard is so consistent. Maybe you've heard it before (I've
certainly said it before), but I'd be falling down on the job if I didn't say
once again that Leonard has perhaps the most finely developed instinct
for writing within the voices of his characters in contemporary American fiction.
Like Charlie Watts playing drums or Miles Davis blowing a solo, Leonard has
winnowed out his craft so that he can hit only a few choice notes and make every
The opening three paragraphs of Mr. Paradise are an effortless
establishment of place and character:
"Late afternoon and Chloe and Kelly were having cocktails at the Rattlesnake
Club, the two seated on the far side of the dining room by themselves: Chloe
talking, Kelly listening. Chloe trying to get Kelly to help her entertain Anthony
Paradiso, an 84-year-old guy who was paying her five thousand a week to be his
"Now Chloe was offering Kelly a cigarette from a pack of Virginia Slims,
the long ones, the 120s.
"They'd made their entrance, the early after-work crowd still looking,
speculating, something they did each time the two came in. Not showgirls. More
like fashion models: designer casual wool coats, oddball pins, scarves, big
leather belts, definitely not bimbos. They could be sisters, tall, the same
type, the same nose jobs, both remembered as blonds, their hair cropped short.
Today they wore hats, each a knit cloche down on her eyes, and sunglasses. It
was April in Detroit, snow predicted."
Those paragraphs read so smoothly that it's easy to overlook the craft in them,
the way Leonard has eliminated every unnecessary phrase ("Not showgirls"
instead of "They didn't look like showgirls"; "designer casual
wool coats ..." instead of "Their outfits consisted of ..."),
the way he has made third-person narration sound as if someone were telling
you a story, conversationally, converting verbal shorthand into literary shorthand
without making the sentences seem arid, minimalist, drained of juice.
Tough as he can be, Leonard is essentially a comic writer. He views his characters,
even the most repellent of them (which here are two racist hit men and the shyster
lawyer who solicits jobs for them), with a grim amusement. (Here, a memo in
a coroner's lab reads: "Howard, you will be responsible for brain bucket
cleanup Monday.") The plots of Leonard's books don't unfold with the breathlessness
of thrillers but with a sense of inevitability that's derived from farce. I
never like to describe the plots of Leonard's books and take away from the reader's
fun. Without giving anything away, Mr. Paradise involves assumed identity,
a battle over a will, and the kind of ass-kissing flattery of a wealthy old
son of a bitch that Ben Jonson wrote about in Volpone.
In fact, Mr. Paradise might be Leonard's Volpone, a comedy on
the excesses of human greed in which a wily old man gets the last laugh. Only
here that wily old fox isn't the murder victim it's Leonard.