- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

MR. PARADISE

By Elmore Leonard

William Morrow, $24.95, 291 pages

REVIEWED BY CAROL HERMAN

Twice in Elmore Leonard’s “Mr. Paradise,” Avern Cohn, a lawyer specializing in arranging the murders of people no one will miss, recalls a song that moved him. The first time he is sitting with two killers he has hired in a Detroit bar that has seen better days: “Avern said, ‘Barbra Streisand sang here at the Caucus when she was just eighteen years old.’ Avern was sixty-one, active in a theater group. ‘I remember her doing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ real slow.’”

That song, turned into a cry that is more ironic than glad, more foreboding than seductive, must be the anthem of this irresistible book. And irresistible is putting it mildly. I was held captive by “Mr. Paradise” from start to finish, racing from page to page, pausing only when a family member dared to intrude.

This is Mr. Leonard’s 39th novel and the surpassing author of “Get Shorty” and “Mr. Majestyk,” to name just two of his best-selling books, knows the rhythm of crime and life. And this dark book, for all that it reveals about the basest impulses of human nature, also laughs, bargains, rages, kills, heals, dances and sings. And because of this “Mr. Paradise” is, in its way - and dare I say it - a happy book.

For 84-year-old Tony Paradiso (“Mr. Paradise”), however, happiness is most definitely not “here again.” With a prostitute dressed as a University of Michigan cheerleader, the retired personal-injury attorney is murdered in his bedroom. It is just one of several crimes being investigated by Frank Delsa, “acting lieutenant of Squad Seven, Homicide Section, Detroit Police Department.”

But this is not a classic detective story. Murderers are not hidden by convoluted turns of plot or well-placed red herrings. And the lead sleuth, in this case Delsa, is no ratiocinative genius tuned to clues mere mortals miss. In each of the crimes that take place in this book, perpetrators are known all along. Nevertheless, the book can be seen as a paean to hard work in the face of twisted human yearnings and misdeeds. It is crime portrayed and justice revealed with a jaunty and sexy story getting you to the finish line.

And what a story. When the novel opens, readers are introduced to two young women who mull over the financial opportunity presented by Tony Paradiso’s kinky proclivities. Chloe, who is being paid $5,000 a visit to be the retired lawyer’s “girlfriend,” is trying to persuade her friend Kelly, a Victoria’s Secret model, to accompany her to the house and partake of the old man’s (er) generosity.

They are knockouts, each of them in her own way, making an impression wherever they went:

“They’d made their entrance, the early after-work crowd still looking, speculating, something they did each time the two came in. Not showgirls. More like fashion models: designer casual wool coats, oddball pins, scarves, big leather belts, definitely not bimbos. They could be sisters, tall the same type, the same nose jobs, both remembered as blonds, their hair cropped short. Today they wore hats, each a knit cloche down on her eyes, and sunglasses. It was April in Detroit, snow predicted.

“Now they were lighting their cigarettes.”

They smoke Virginia Slims 120s, and drink Alexanders in crystal lowball glasses and, while Mr. Paradiso sits in a love seat facing a TV console where tapes of old University of Michigan football games are played, the girls shake and clap. This particular night the “‘98 Rose Bowl, Michigan and Washington State” is playing.

There are raunchy cheers to accompany, sweaters, megaphones and a directive to go topless that Kelly resists. But for the money, they’ll make the widower with married children and grandchildren happy for an evening.

And that’s what happened. Chloe lifted her sweater for the old man to paint an M on her chest in blue magic marker. Kelly kept her sweater on but “gave him a darling smile and said, ‘go blue.’” But all is not glee for long. Abruptly, two men enter and shoot Tony Paradiso and one of the girls and the book moves forward from there.

There is not much else that can be said about the plot without denying the reader the pleasure of myriad discoveries - about the crime, the perps, other linked crimes, the detective, Detroit. Mr. Leonard traverses the racial divide with ease, equally at home with street talk, lawyer talk, and detective talk, and while each may be foreign to the reader at the start - packing a “nine” for example - it all becomes clear, or at least clearer by the end. And the generous references to music help. Rap and hip-hop hold the day. Eminem’s presence is felt. And, curiously, it doesn’t rankle in the way it usually does.

There is most certainly a spell to this book. And it’s not induced by the martini-and-olive-soaked landscape its characters inhabit or even its erotic underpinnings. This is a smart book, one in which well-drawn minor characters like Montez traverse, in their way, the inequities of culture and fortune:

At 17, Montez “was convicted of aggravated assault … Now he’s a baller, a ghetto star, still in his teens making six figures. Has the strut, his bling bling, has his girls iced up, big spinning rims on his car, a heavy bass in his sound box. Montez is now called Chops.” Montez, who grows up to become one of Tony Paradiso’s main assistants and Lloyd, another pivotal character, provide important insider commentary about their employer’s life and what he leaves in his will.

This is not a flawless work. Some characters with the most promise seem to lose steam by the end. A few, unaccountably, merely vanish.

But by the second time Avern is telling the Barbra Streisand story, there is no doubt about what makes happiness. Happiness is justice. Justice takes work and there’s no mystery about whose side Mr. Leonard’s on. The book is dedicated to the Detroit Police Homicide Section.

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