Leonard's latest smacks of Hammett, Dickens

August 25, 1991|By George Grella


Elmore Leonard.


295 pages. $20. In the course of his long and productive career, Elmore Leonard has been favorably compared to just about every crime writer that reviewers could remember (whether they'd read them or not), with James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett generally leading the list. Although his work follows in the native American tradition of tough writing in its terse, colloquial style and its wise and wised-up picture of a violent, sinful world, it also displays a certain wacky sympathy for even its worst people and a lively sense of the grotesque. As his latest novel, "Maximum Bob," suggests, Elmore Leonard may owe as much to the richness of Charles Dickens as to the understatement of Hammett.

Like Dickens, he is fascinated by the business of the law. He exhibits an insider's knowledge of courtroom proceedings and a feel for the everyday lives of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, not to speak of the criminals around whom everything in those courtrooms revolves. In "Maximum Bob," the title character is a notoriously punitive judge and the protagonist is a female probation officer who finds herself the target of the judge's lechery and the potential victim of one of the criminals she oversees; her presence ties together a wildly complicated plot.

Although he is widely and justly praised for his authenticity, Mr. Leonard often actually creates a dreamlike, Dickensian sense of reality. His bizarre, eccentric, unbalanced characters, all speaking in their own highly individual prose styles, collide jTC crazily with each other to form random patterns of coincidence, humor and violence. Even his skill at rapid changes in point of view, which may derive from his experience and knowledge of motion pictures, also duplicates the old-fashioned omniscience of the great authors of the 19th century.

In "Maximum Bob," Leanne, the wife of the title character, quit her job as a mermaid in a Florida underwater show when she had a vision of an alligator and an out-of-body experience that left her under the control of a spirit guide, a 12-year-old slave named Wanda Grace, who died in 1855. Tired of Leanne and Wanda, Judge Bob tries to frighten them away by getting a convicted poacher to deposit a 10-foot alligator in his backyard. That incident brings a homicide detective into the plot, which leads to a romance between the cop and the probation officer, which leads to a parolee who tries to kill the judge, the cop and the probation officer, and much, much more.

More than the remarkably complicated plot connections of "Maximum Bob" suggest an increasingly surreal tendency in Elmore Leonard's fiction. His straightforward presentation of the most extraordinary material -- the alligator itself, Leanne's vision, the voice of little Wanda Grace, the thought patterns of a psychopathic -- resembles the photographic visual accuracy of one of those dreamlike modern paintings by Dali or Magritte. In returning to Florida, one of his favorite locations, the author also returns to some of his previous work. He recycles characters from such books as "Gold Coast" and "Split Images," as if he were going to tell his stories over and over, each time departing further and further from ordinary reality, until the people and events take on the quality of hallucination.

Unlike some of his novels, even his best ones, "Maximum Bobdoesn't settle for a pat, semicomic ending, but darkens abruptly into violent death and a sense of rueful irony. As usual, the most compelling characters are the bad guys, of various degrees of nastiness, especially the paroled killer Elvin Crowe, from a Southern family right out of Faulkner. No matter how decent, his admirable characters are no match for his villains, perhaps because like many writers of fiction he finds only one good but innumerable evils.

"Maximum Bob" demonstrates the continued development oone of the most original writers in contemporary fiction. He has produced, with scarcely a lapse in quality, a large body of work with deceptive depth and variety, and continues to write unusual and compellingly readable novels about some of the most regrettable and characteristic behaviors of our time. Someday very soon, Elmore Leonard may achieve the sort of eminence appropriate for the Dickens of his day, which will only be his due.

Dr. Grella frequently writes on mysteries and thrillers. He teaches English at the University of Rochester.

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