As the acclaim for Elmore Leonard's comic crime novels has grown over the past 10 years or so, I've found myself enjoying them less. It isn't that Leonard has lost anything as a craftsman, or that his near-ventriloquist's gift for dialogue has become any less sharp. It's just that the mantle of wily entertainer he'd acquired took the edge off the satisfying, mordant grittiness of earlier books like "Split Images" or "Unknown Man #89." Leonard sacrificed thrills for laughs, instead of combining them as the late, great Ross Thomas did, or as the brazenly entertaining Carl Hiassen still does.
But hallelujah: "Out of Sight" is, for my money at least, Leonard's most satisfying book in a long time. Of all the damn things, it's a romantic comedy. Leonard follows the genre rules as well as any writer of shaggy-dog noirs could: Boy and girl meet, think they're wrong for each other (though we know they're a dream match) and spend the rest of the book discovering that they're just the perfect blendship. And that takes some doing, because she, Karen Sisco, is a U.S. Marshall, and he, Jack Foley, is America's most prolific bank robber. They meet when Jack stuffs Karen into the trunk of her Chevy Caprice during a prison break. While he's crammed in alongside her for the ride (and behaving like a perfect gentleman, too), the pair discover they talk easy together, and once parted find that, for them, out of sight does not mean out of mind.
Leonard's repartee has a casual wit, and he expertly pulls off hair-trigger turns of mood (a home invasion by some of Foley's less-principled associates is particularly frightening). Among the book's modest pleasures is the relationship between Karen and her dad, himself a private investigator, who treats Karen with a father's affectionate, protective annoyance, an older colleague's respect for a talented newcomer and a drinking buddy's trust: "They were on the patio with Jack Daniels over ice, the sun going down. Her dad had told her often enough it was Walter Huston's favorite time of day in 'The Virginian' and Walter was right. This evening he didn't mention it." The whole book goes down that easy. To borrow a line from the screenwriter Robert Getchell, "Sip it slow and the world stays sweet."