Pagan Babies

by Elmore Leonard

Published by Delacorte

224 pages, 2000

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Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute





Leonard's Big Score

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


At 74 years of age, Elmore Leonard is a living American treasure. In 36 novels over the past half-century, he has demonstrated that when you step outside the law, you have stepped into a very chaotic, violent universe that can also be very, very funny. His latest bestselling novel, Pagan Babies, is another genuine high point in a career that already includes Hombre, Out of Sight and Get Shorty.

But what gets me is that, if he weren't so damn successful as a writer of page-turners (as the New York publishing houses call them), elitist academics and lit-crits would have recognized by now that he is a toiler on the same spiritual highway as that deified literary great Flannery O'Connor. Leonard may be known as the Dickens of Detroit (I think Stephen King started that nickname), but don't let his Michigan residency fool you -- his heart and soul lie on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

When I interviewed him three years ago, Leonard told me that in his youth, "I read Flannery O'Connor, and maybe she influenced me as a Southern writer. I always felt more a Southern writer, closer to the South than I am to being a crime writer. Oh, I read Hammett and Chandler. Hammett was OK. I read Chandler, certainly, but I didn't learn anything from him....

"I write crime, not mysteries," Leonard qualifies. "I don't read mysteries. I never cared who did it. I think the bad guy is more fun than the good guy. And in mysteries there's a puzzle, and puzzles don't interest me. Mysteries are all plot; plot doesn't interest me."

Consider that Leonard was born the same year as Flannery O'Connor -- 1925. (She died in 1964.) They both spent their most formative years in the South, O'Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, and Leonard in Memphis, Tennessee. "I loved Memphis," Leonard says. He cried when his family moved to Detroit. He was then 9 years old.

Both writers were reared Roman Catholic. O'Connor became a fundamentalist Catholic, for lack of a better definition. For her, we are all blighted by Original Sin. We are all God's screw-ups and we all desperately need redemption. She felt that Christians should live every moment in the shadow of Death, who will arrive -- in the words of Christ -- "like a thief in the night."

Leonard went to Catholic schools from first grade on. This included the University of Detroit High School (where he says he "learned how to think") and the University of Detroit, both Jesuit institutions. He attended Mass daily until the early 1970s, when he felt the need to join Alcoholics Anonymous and substituted that program's principles for the Catholic Church's disciplines. (He now attends Mass infrequently.) In AA, he explains, "you try to develop a direct relationship with God, or a higher power, as you understand the concept. The main idea of the program is to 'let go and let God,' to get rid of your hang-ups and try to live your everyday life as an instrument of God's purpose, and that is to show love to one another." Leonard joined AA in 1974, "but it took three years for the program to sink in. Finally on January 24, 1977, I had my last drink."

Leonard writes hard-boiled crime fiction the way Flannery O'Connor writes hard-boiled crime in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Compare O'Connor's Misfit with any of Leonard's gothic villains, whether it's the Oklahoma Wildman, Clement Mansell, from City Primeval, Mama's Boy Teddy Magyk from Glitz, or any of his Florida loony crackers named Crowe. The fact that they can be compared is because both Leonard and O'Connor grew up with the same sensational, real-life killers.

During my first interview with him on May 23, 1997, Leonard offhandedly pointed out that it was the 63rd anniversary of the day Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) were shot to death on an Oklahoma road, ending their legendary careers as Depression-era holdup artists. That he knew the anniversary date so readily surprised even Leonard.

"I read somewhere that the most impressionable age for children is between 5 and 10," he told me. "I was between 5 and 10 when all those desperadoes were roaming the Midwest and holding up banks. They were kind of folk heroes. So many homes and farms had been repossessed, taken back by the banks, that when the banks were robbed, people cheered. And they could forgive the desperadoes for killing someone who occasionally got in the way. Those bank robbers of the 30s truly influenced me. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd -- that's what I'm doing today." Not exactly robbing banks, but writing about folks who could. Who do. Who do worse than that.

Although their details can be engrossing and memorable, the basic plot of every Elmore Leonard novel is the same: A handful of poseurs -- role-players at villainy -- meet up, compare notes on their bizarre past histories, find themselves compatible in their approach to criminality and then decide to become partners and go for a Big Score. Before the game is over, these wannabes will cross paths with somebody who isn't role-playing, who isn't play-acting, who is as ruthless as they only imagine they can be. The poseurs won't recognize that inner no-nonsense, that inner ruthlessness -- and that's when violence splatters the walls.

Knowing this formula, however, won't prepare you for page one of Leonard's new novel.

* * *

Pagan Babies plops us down into post-genocide Rwanda, a landscape of horror where, in 1994, 800,000 Tutsi natives were murdered by the Hutus over a three-month period -- "a full-scale attempt at genocide that barely made the six o'clock news," as Leonard writes.

Father Terry Dunn, "a bearded young man in a white cassock," is living on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He has been in Rwanda for three very long years. During his first celebration of Mass upon his arrival in Africa, Dunn's church was overrun by Hutu militiamen who slaughtered his congregation while the priest stood by, shocked but unable to do anything.

That parish church has since been sealed shut -- with the butchered bodies of 47 men, women and children left inside, all victims of the Rwanda massacre. For the past five years Dunn has been running on empty and spinning his wheels. He hears the occasional confession and reads Dr. Seuss to the native children. He gets by on goat stew, homegrown ganja and Johnnie Walker Red.

Not surprisingly Dunn seems moments away from full-blown post-traumatic stress syndrome. In the confessional, for instance, when one penitent wonders if he can receive forgiveness if he kills the Hutu militia member who slaughtered his entire family, Dunn asks, "Is the guy bigger than you?" When the penitent says no, the priest tells him, "Walk up to the guy and hit him in the mouth as hard as you can, with a rock. You'll feel better. Now make a good Act of Contrition for everything you've done and forgot about."

And then -- on the same day he receives a letter saying that his mother has died in his absence -- Dunn commits a most unpriestly act of divine wrath, which convinces him that it's probably a good time to return to the United States.

Father Terry's brother, Fran, is a Detroit lawyer who specializes in accident-injury cases. Fran introduces him to Debbie Dewey, who has just been released from Sawgrass Correctional Institute in Florida, after doing time for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Debbie has discovered her true mission in life behind the walls: she wants to do standup comedy.

Like all good role-players, Debbie makes her crime out to be more serious than it actually was. As part of her stage act, she tells her audience, "I was visiting my mom in Florida and happened to run into my ex-husband ... with a Buick Rivera." In truth, she confesses to Father Terry, it was a Ford Escort.

Debbie's immediate goal is revenge against that very same ex-husband, Randy Agley, a con man who swept her off her feet and separated her from her $50,000 in savings. After Randy left Debbie, he married a wealthy woman, who has only recently divorced him. But before this second woman left, Randy managed to swindle a few million dollars and a tony restaurant in Detroit out of her.

Debbie is naturally attracted to Terry Dunn. Especially after she discovers that when he left America five years ago, it was just a step ahead of his being indicted for tax fraud. It seems Dunn and two Pajonny brothers -- high school "friends" -- were involved in smuggling cigarettes from Kentucky into Detroit. As Fran Dunn explains it, "Terry left right after they were busted and the Pajonnys rolled over on him to plead down, saying it was his idea and he took off with their share. So on the strength of that Terry was indicted, but by then he was in Africa."

Fran notes that, of course, his brother was different in those days: "Terry wasn't a priest yet when he got involved with the cigarettes. He wasn't ordained till he got over there, and took his vows." Apparently, before he became a man of the cloth, Terry Dunn was the archetypal Leonard hero, "a real hardnose, played football three years in high school, liked to box -- he'd take on bigger guys, it didn't matter. Even if he was getting beat up he always hung in."

This less holy side of the priest gives Debbie Dewey ideas. Big ideas. She wants him to help her siphon $250,000 away from her ex-hubby, Randy, and some of his newfound friends in the Detroit Mob. Seems that Randy Agley "became a gangster about two months after opening [his] restaurant," when Vincent Moraco, a low-level Detroit mob guy, slid his slimy tentacles into Randy's operations, bringing "some high-class girls" in with him. But Randy has since grown unhappy with his underworld links. "By the end of April," Leonard writes, "nine months into the arrangement, Randy's mob connection had cost him $116,200 out-of-pocket. He still saw himself as a wiseguy, but no longer on the level of a [Lucky] Luciano. Christ, Luciano would've had Moraco whacked by now and taken over the girls." Randy is worried that his maitre d' will quit over "those goombas who'd show up, no reservation, and squeeze into Booth Number One without asking." In addition, the new linen service, "owned by Moraco's boss, cost twice what it should. And the Mutt, the Mutt was five bills a week down a rathole. What did he do? The girls, the ones who showed up, didn't need protection."

The Mutt (real name: Searcy J. Bragg Jr.) is another terrific Leonard creation. He's a farmboy-turned-killer from Indiana, dumb as grass but no-nonsense as a rock. Like any enterprising young hitman, the Mutt is willing to kill anybody for a price. He makes a deal with Randy Agley to kill Vincent Moraco for $25,000. All the Mutt needs to do the job is get himself a gun. And a driver for the getaway car. And a getaway car.

There are no straight lines in this novel's plot. Dunn and Debbie may be falling in love as they set out to con Randy -- or is that just part of the con, too? The moronic Mutt may actually be the smartest member of this bunch, but can he carry out Randy's contract on Moraco at the same time as he fulfills another contract from Moraco to kill Terry Dunn for trying to con the mob? Amid a deluge of story line twists and ever-quirkier characters, we lose ourselves in Leonard's marvelous worlds of words. We hardly notice how, along the way, he cheerfully skewers the all-too-human ego and repeatedly deflates the balloon of human vanity. And of course every step of the way he confounds the reader's expectations. Father Terry, for instance, has a most remarkable confession to make before the book is done.

* * *

In Elmore Leonard's world, everybody weasels and the wise man should suspect that. In fact, all the players in Pagan Babies are sneakily making plans to score the Big Score and screw everybody else in the game. The greatest fun is watching those best-laid plans unravel.

Because the point of view constantly changes in Leonard's novels, because he is not committed to any one character, his pacing is always just a step ahead of any reader. Predictability is diminished, while suspense is built in as neatly as a kitchen cabinet in a custom home.

Leonard never writes to formula. His novels are not scripted. Their endings are always up in the air. And despite all I know about Elmore Leonard and his techniques, he still had me buffaloed at the end of Pagan Babies. It's a lovely book. | December 2000


Frederick Zackel is a contributing editor of January Magazine.