Up in Honey's Room

by Elmore Leonard

Morrow, 304 pp., $25.95

When a major writer produces a sub-par book, it's no great disaster, no unforgivable affront to readers. But the biggest loser in the deal may be the new reader who picks the book up on the basis of reputation and hype, wonders what the shouting was about, and decides never to try that particular author again.

Elmore Leonard is one of the great names in contemporary crime fiction, revered and honored by his peers, rewarded with healthy book sales by a loyal readership. True, some lesser writers move more books and some arguably better writers (Donald E. Westlake, say) move fewer. It's remarkable Leonard makes the bestseller lists at all in the current thriller-dominated market, given the keys to his success: plot movement, sparkling dialogue, offbeat character development, deadpan humor, economically sketched background, a wide range of pop culture references and factual nuggets, minimal use of descriptive passages (he tries to leave out the stuff readers skip), and that elusive quality known as style.

There is suspense, certainly, but focused on what will happen next, not on any visceral connection with the characters, whom he views at too much of a distance for the kind of emotional reader identification supposedly essential in today's popular fiction. By his own admission, he finds the bad guys more intriguing than the good guys. Readers not interested in the inner lives of small-time crooks may not fully get Leonard, but will still admire his skill.

Born in New Orleans in 1925, but a resident for most of his life of Detroit, the locale of much of his fiction, Leonard worked in advertising after wartime service in the Naval Reserve. His first professional fiction sales were westerns for the 1950s magazine markets, beginning with Argosy and the still-flourishing pulps, finally cracking the prestigious Saturday Evening Post in 1956. These early stories were gathered in The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard (2004), whose endpapers reproduce those colorful magazine covers. He also wrote eight western novels, notably Hombre (1961) and Valdez Is Coming (1969), which became movie vehicles for Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster respectively. But after the decline of the western market, he turned to hard urban crime fiction, beginning with The Big Bounce (1970). By the end of the 1970s, he had become a favorite of connoisseurs, and by the time he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for LaBrava (1983), he was firmly situated in the genre's pantheon.

Even in a lesser example of his work, which Up in Honey's Room certainly is, Leonard's strengths are at least sporadically on display. The action begins in 1939 Detroit, where Honey Deal has just left her husband Walter Schoen, a German immigrant who believes he is the twin brother (separated at birth) of Heinrich Himmler. The story jumps ahead five years to 1944. Honey is contacted by FBI agent Kevin Dean, and soon she is accompanying Carl Webster of the U.S. Marshal Service on a visit to question Walter, a known Nazi sympathizer and enthusiastic reader of Mein Kampf, about two escaped German prisoners of war, SS Major Otto Penzler and tank commander Jurgen Schrenk. The balance of the action alternates between the German group and their various plans and activities, including a venture in the black market meat industry, and Webster's investigation. A side issue is whether Honey will succeed in seducing the loyally married marshal. There are brief interludes of violent action, but most of the story is told through dialogue.

Continuing characters are rare in Leonard's work, maybe with good reason. The Oklahoman Webster was first met as the title character of the Prohibition-era feds-and-robbers saga The Hot Kid (2005), a better book than its sequel, and also figured in "Comfort to the Enemy," a New York Times Magazine serial in the same year. The back story is filled in via a family conversation among Webster, his father Virgil, and Virgil's common-law wife Narcissa Raincrow. Three characters recounting to each other for the reader's benefit things they obviously already know makes for exceedingly clumsy exposition, particularly from a writer who has been compared to George V. Higgins as a master of dialogue-driven narrative.

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.

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