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 Images," "Unknown 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 one count.
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 girlfriend.
"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.
-- Charles Taylor