A Motown Mystery
Even lesser Leonard is well worth a read.
Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By JON L. BREEN
The choice of names is another problem. The confusingly similar surnames Deal and Dean should have been avoided, though fortunately the FBI man is a relatively minor character. Calling one of the German fugitives Otto Penzler, in jokey homage to the well-known publisher, book dealer, and crime fiction expert, is more serious. In genre fiction, this is called Tuckerization, named after Wilson Tucker, the mystery and science fiction writer who popularized the practice. Such foolery can be cute in small doses, but to name such a prominent character after such a well-known model is dubious indeed. To some lucky readers, the name will mean nothing. Those who recognize it may find it a delightful in-joke, smugly congratulate themselves for feeling like insiders, or (most likely) be distracted from the story.
There are good lines of dialogue, jokes, period details, character touches, and unexpected plot reversals to reward the patient reader. But the story doesn't move as it should, bogging down in tiresome conversations of questionable plot relevance or entertainment value. For once, Leonard left in stuff readers will want to skip.
The lesson to be drawn is a simple one, though it contradicts the commercially encouraged impulse to overvalue the new. Elmore Leonard completists--those who read and/or collect everything he writes--will and should acquire this book. Those with limited experience with his work, or most crucially new readers, should first seek out his excellent past novels. For strong examples, transport to the 1970s and '80s is not necessary. In Pagan Babies (2000), the very funny adventures of a fugitive priest and a female wannabe stand-up comic, are the vehicle for exploring some serious issues, including the Rwandan genocide. Be Cool (1999), a sequel to the memorably filmed Get Shorty (1990), delivers au courant satire in hood-turned-Hollywoodian Chili Palmer's efforts to sort out the burgeoning categories of contemporary popular music.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is associate dean and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College.