- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ROAD DOGS

By Elmore Leonard

William Morrow, $26.99, 262 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

I think Elmore Leonard made a pact with the devil. Unlike Dorian Gray, he is getting and looking older, but his ability to write his trademark sassy, smart, funny (often LOL) and page-turning prose is undiminished in this, his 44th book.

Don’t bother to contact me and nitpick about the fact that three of the books aren’t novels. (There are two short-story collections and one work of nonfiction.) Try it, and I’ll send Chili Palmer after you. If you don’t know who that is, you might not even know who Mr. Leonard is, and if so, you can stop reading right here; but if you stop, you’ll miss your chance to meet the best crime writer, and one of the best and hippest creations, in all of contemporary popular fiction.

To call Jack Foley (the charming crook from Mr. Leonard’s 2002 novel “Out of Sight,” played by George Clooney in the movie version) and Cundo Rey “road dogs,” as in best friends, is somewhat ironic, given that when we meet them, they’re both incarcerated, as in locked up.

Cundo, rich as sin from the drug trade, is short and Cuban, and Foley, America’s busiest bank robber (138 total), is tall and Caucasian, but they bond in prison.

Walking around the yard one day, Cundo lays it on the line. “We friends or what? You the only white guy in this joint I ever tole about my life. You smart for a … bank robber.”

Cundo, who is getting out soon, pays his “chick lawyer” $30,000 to appeal Foley’s conviction, and lo and behold, Foley gets out two weeks before Cundo. He heads straight to Venice Beach, Calif., where Cundo owns, among many other things, two big houses right across the canal from each other.

In one of them resides the lovely Dawn Navarro (Mr. Leonard’s names are as right-on as his plots), whom Cundo married (sort of) four months before he went to jail and who has been waiting - faithfully, she has sworn to Cundo in every phone call over the past seven years - for him to return to her warm embrace.

Foley moves into the other house, and soon he’s the one Dawn is warmly embracing, which provides the essential conflict of the novel. Dawn, a professional psychic with a decidedly dishonest bent despite being an “ordained minister of the Spiritualist Assembly of Waco, Texas,” has been waiting (faithfully, remember?) for Cundo because what she really loves is his money. Much as he wants to believe Dawn loves him and has been “virginal” for the duration of his seven-year hitch, Cundo is no fool. He has Little Jimmy, the man who watches his money, also watch Dawn.

As for Foley, who owes Cundo for his freedom, the borrowed roof over his head and the clothes on his back, well, he’s Cundo’s road dog, and one road dog wouldn’t mess with his buddy’s lady, right? Right. But all Foley has to do is take one look at Dawn, and he knows his life is going to get complicated. “Reverend Dawn,” Foley hears himself say within minutes, “You’re asking me to conspire against my friend, aren’t you?”

Indeed she is, and as that story line begins to play, Mr. Leonard fleshes out the narrative with a few other choice characters. One of them is Lou Adams, a special agent with the FBI who is so obsessed with Foley, so positive he is going to rob another bank, that he uses his vacation time to follow Foley out to California in order to be on hand when Foley hits No. 139. Then, of course, Adams will arrest Foley and send him away for life, with no possibility of parole, thanks to a “chick lawyer.” The only problem is that Foley doesn’t cooperate.

Little Jimmy, whom Cundo calls “The Monk” because he is not interested in women, is also a piece of work. A math wiz, he knows where all Cundo’s assets - both legal and illegal - are hidden, and if he weren’t so indebted to and scared of Cundo, he just might abscond with the whole fortune, which is, of course, just what Dawn is pushing him to do.

When Cundo is released a week early, the action shifts to fast forward, as Mr. Leonard moves the plot pieces smoothly and apparently effortlessly into place. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know what’s ahead, given what’s gone before. Mr. Leonard shows all of his characters to be pros at what they do, whether it’s rob banks or predict the future, but they’re clumsy amateurs compared to their creator.

As usual, the dialogue is flawless. I always assumed that Mr. Leonard had contacts “in the life,” whatever life that might be, and that he listened to them, maybe even taped them, to get it so right. Not so, he told Time magazine: “I just make it up. Don’t you hear people talking in your head? You think of a certain character, and you hear them talking. And from the way he talks, his character has attitude. When you see a character coming that you’ve met before, you know what his angle is going to be, what his beef is or if he’s funny. So that I’m always writing from their point of view, and I’m never writing from my own.”

With the possible exception of the late John D. MacDonald, I can’t think of another American crime novelist who so consistently delivers the goods at the same high level of quality, year in and year out, book after book after book.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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