Say one thing for Elmore Leonard — the man knows enough not to fool with a sure bet. Take his new novel, “Be Cool,” the much-anticipated sequel to “Get Shorty.” Some writers, eager to prove their literary chops, might have followed up a popular success like “Shorty” with a more inflated and pretentious performance, pushing old characters into new artistic territory. Fortunately, Leonard knew better. Some of his weaker books have been overpraised in the past, but “Get Shorty” was the real thing, a masterpiece of ironic storytelling. And Leonard, old pro that he is, must have realized that extensive fiddling would only spoil the magic of the original formula. So instead of trying to “grow artistically” (can you imagine what Norman Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance II” would look like?), he went ahead and wrote the same perfect book all over again. And made it even better the second time around.
For those who might have spent the ’90s in a coma in Papua New Guinea, I should explain that “Get Shorty” was the 1990 novel (and then the 1995 film) that first introduced the world to Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark who stumbles into the movie business while in Los Angeles trying to collect on a debt. Chili was an inspired comic creation — an unflappable small-time operator whose Mob-style methods of persuasion proved to be remarkably effective in Hollywood, probably because they represent only a slight exaggeration of the unscrupulous business practices of real industry players. What made Chili so terrifically appealing, though, was his fundamental sweetness. He was a big teddy bear under that iron glance and tough-guy swagger. Leonard has always been adept at creating rogues with charm, but Chili had a kind of knowing innocence that somehow thrived amid the venal insanity of Hollywood, where everybody’s got ideas for a movie but few have the power to make one. Chili may not have known the business, but as an ex-shylock he did know how to get people to do what he wanted.
In “Be Cool,” Chili’s back, only now he’s a successful Hollywood producer with two films under his belt. As in “Get Shorty,” he’s got a concept for a new movie — one about the music industry this time — but no clear plot or ending. And since he can’t seem to develop a script by imagination alone, he again has to manipulate characters in his real life to get ideas for his movie (“I’m plotting,” he explains at one point as he schemes to get rid of the hit man who’s after him). The story line is too convoluted to summarize here, but take my word for it: It’s “Get Shorty” all over again, this time with plenty of cynical details about the popular music business. Chili again plays puppeteer, setting one group of his antagonists against another (here it’s the Russian mafia, a rock singer’s sleazy manager and a scary hip-hop group instead of Colombian drug lords, crooked limo drivers and an angry Miami gangster). Much good-natured bloodletting ensues, leading one L.A. detective to remark: “My wife wants to know how come I’m putting in so much overtime lately. I told her ’cause Chili Palmer’s making a movie.”
It’s all very deftly done, and — remarkably — just as fresh as it was almost a decade ago. The movie version (complete with soundtrack CD) is no doubt already in the works, and I’ll be first in line for the premiere. But what I’d really like to see is a third installment of the Palmer saga, in which Chili decides to do a movie about the absurdities of the New York publishing industry. Man, would I have some ideas for him there.