Pronto, by Elmore Leonard

Tags:  crime-fiction,

This is the first Elmore Leonard book I’ve read that just didn’t do it for me. One of the great strengths of crime fiction is that its characters' motivations are always clear. The criminals and the people pursuing them are driven by the most fundamental human desires: greed, lust, ambition, resentment, revenge, justice.

Pronto, by Elmore Leonard

Crime fiction can be compelling because these desires drive us all, to some extent, and because characters who personify the extremes of these desires act out in flesh and blood the battles that most of us struggle with internally. They’re like the old Greek gods, each personifying some aspect of the psyche, and each in conflict with the others.

But this simplicity of motive can also be limiting. Characters don’t need to develop beyond being the guy who wants to steal money or the guy who wants to be the next crime boss. Nor do we have to care about them beyond that point.

If you’re going to work with shallow characters, you must draw them well, put them into an interesting world, and make the action and conflicts compelling. Elmore Leonard usually excels on all these fronts, but he fell flat on this one.

Here’s the story: Miami bookie Harry Arno has been quietly skimming money off his betting racket for over twenty years. He’s supposed to pay out half his earnings to Mafia boss Jimmy “Cap” Capotorto, but he’s been under-reporting his weekly book for as long as he can remember. Cap is too old and too lazy to care. As long as Harry doesn’t cause trouble, Cap is happy for the thousands of dollars he pumps into the organization every week.

At 67, Arno wants out of the game. He’s saved enough to retire, and he’s about to leave on a permanent trip to Italy when things go wrong. Federal agents investigating the local Mafia find a stooge to convince Cap’s lieutenants that Arno walked off with the proceeds from an $11,000 bet. The idea was to get Arno in hot water with his boss, then offer him a plea deal if he testifies against the Cap.

The feds' plan goes horribly wrong when Jimmy Bucks, aka The Zip, a ruthless hitman imported from Sicily, convinces Cap that Arno needs to be murdered–and the more brutally, the better–as an example to the organization’s other bookies, a message telling them what kind of retaliation they’ll suffer if they try to rip off the family.

After botching this setup, the feds decide to walk away from the case, leaving Harry on his own to defend himself against the Mafia and a single-minded killer.

Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens, who had been assigned to guard Arno during the brief period when the government actually cared about the case, does not like Arno’s prospects, or the way the government set him up and then walked away. He decides to guard Arno on his own time, vacation time, during which he follows Arno to Italy.

The Zip, the ruthless hitman in pursuit of Arno, follows as well, and the action moves overseas for a while. In Italy, Arno and Givens have everything stacked against them. The Zip calls in his Italian family to locate and trap his prey. Givens, a lawman in the US, has no special legal standing in Italy, and no backup to call on.

So begins the cat-and-mouse game. And the problems too.

Harry Arno is not a compelling character. He’s too careless and stupid to have survived for decades as a Mafia bookie. He can’t keep a secret, he doesn’t seem to care who he offends, and he doesn’t take basic precautions for his safety even when he knows someone is out to kill him.

Then there’s The Zip, who is probably the most well-drawn character in the book. He’s thoroughly dispicable, but you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s gruff, cold, calculating, ruthless, fearless, ambitious, and kills without feeling. He’s a doer, not a talker. He can spot fear and weakness instictively, and he’s openly contemptuous of both.

That’s all fine and good for a character in his position in a novel like this. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that he has a number of encounters with Raylan Givens, who is just as tough minded and who wants to kill The Zip as much as The Zip wants to kill him. But in every encounter, they just talk, posturing like tough guys. Givens knocks The Zip to the ground, in the apartment of a woman he’s come to beat or torture, maybe even rape, then Givens lets him up and they have a nice long talk.

They meet again in a restaurant. Givens pulls a gun on The Zip, and then they sit there chatting. And then again, and again and again.

When Givens willingly walks into The Zip’s apartment, unarmed, to have yet another conversation, The Zip shoots Givens' friend to death in cold blood, then points his Baretta point-blank into Givens' face, and then, inexplicably says, “Nah. You can go.”

Why? Why would this no-nonsense killer who’s willing to shoot anyone at the drop of a hat let Givens walk? Especially after Givens just gunned down The Zip’s friend and then sent the dead friend’s body back to him as a warning?

Why? So they can have a few more talks.

What do these talks sound like? Well, The Zip sounds like a North Jersey thug and Givens sounds like an aw-shucks country boy, and their dialog is a bunch of posturing that sounds like this:

Zip: You come around here again, I put a bullet in your head. Capiche?

Givens: [Shaking his head silently, eyes fixed on The Zip] I don’t think so.

So let’s go back to those simple motives. Both Givens and The Zip have them, but neither acts on them until the very end. They both act out-of-character around each other for 300-plus pages. That’s a problem.

Harry Arno is an ass, and the pages and pages devoted to the description of the town of Rapallo and the history of Ezra Pound are neither interesting in themselves nor necessary for plot, characterization, atmosphere or tone.

I don’t know what Leonard was thinking with this one. He’s a great storyteller, and a great character artist. His plots usually flow naturally from his characters, but not this time. The writing was strong, as usual, but the characters spent too much time talking when they should have been acting, and when they did act, their actions didn’t seem natural.

I’ll read more of Leonard, because he’s so good at what he does. But I think he missed the mark with this one.