Scams and double-deals add punch to Elmore Leonard's tale of violence

August 16, 1992|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,Knight-Ridder News Service

RUM PUNCH.

Elmore Leonard.

Delacorte.

297 pages. $21. Almost no one tells the whole truth (never mind nothing but the truth) in Elmore Leonard's latest crime novel. Almost everyone is scamming or plotting serious evil against almost everyone else. That, of course, is one thing that makes "Rum Punch" such delicious summer reading.

Mr. Leonard's latest sideways look at society, like many others including his last, "Maximum Bob," takes place in South Florida, land of endless shopping centers, condos and lowlifes. It's a book about connections and corruption, ambition and amorality -- and, for some characters, middle-age blues.

There are several major characters, but most of the plot's threads connect through Max Cherry, a 50-ish bail bondsman at the end of an empty marriage and in the middle of a troubling business relationship. He's definitely feeling his age.

In short order, he encounters the other two vital players. They are the chief villain, Ordell Robbie, a truly rotten young gun dealer, and Jackie Burke, a 40-ish (but younger-looking) flight attendant for a small, island-hopping airline. She's been smuggling money back to the United States for Ordell and has been caught by some eager law-enforcement types who also find some cocaine in her bag. The cops offer her a bargain: Help them nail Ordell and the charges will disappear.

So begins a series of deals and double-deals that will force you to read carefully to keep track of who's doing what -- and why -- to whom. As Jackie and Max, who posted her bond, find themselves romantically involved, she starts planning a serious scam that leaves Max, basically an honest guy, less sure of his own moral moorings. As usual in Mr. Leonard's novels, the main female character is strong and clever. Jackie is no angel -- far from it -- but she's sympathetic. Her relationship with Max is only slightly implausible.

Ordell is quite a culprit. He possesses no moral center. He kills without the slightest remorse. He is enormously street smart. He uses women as if they were animate property.

What largely propels the novel through the many side plots is Ordell's aim to pull off one huge gun deal that will leave him rich. He decides to rip off a neo-Nazi storm trooper, and he has the help of a somewhat undependable friend, an ex-con who helped muddle a kidnapping years earlier, and three young men who are chillingly casual about violence. His own day of reckoning comes in the novel's conclusion, a resolution that's probably inescapable but still seems a bit too neat.

As always, Mr. Leonard's prose is spare but powerful, complementing the clever plot. Few others in the genre can match his astonishing ear for dialogue. The book is fast-paced without rushing.

Some people in "Rum Punch" get away with things. Most don't, at least not in the end. But if you're among the legions of folks who can't wait for the latest Elmore Leonard novel, you'll want to get away some weekend and take "Rum Punch" with you.

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