BOOKS: Fiction: Familiar cocktail

CUBA LIBRE by Elmore Leonard Viking pounds 16.99

THERE ARE few really reliable pleasures in life: Elmore Leonard is one of them. Every new book he writes has its share of novelty or surprises - a more complicated scam, an unexpected death, an ingeniously staged shoot-out - but the differences are outweighed by the continuities. Every plot is unpredictable in detail, but predictable in broad outline.

Most of the other novels are set in contemporary Detroit or Miami, with occasional excursions to California, Europe and the Middle East, though he has used period backgrounds in westerns and in The Moonshine War, set in Prohibition Kentucky. But Cuba Libre, his 34th, is his first historical novel, in the sense of being based around actual historical events: the sinking of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbour in February 1898, and the subsequent Spanish-American War.

Ben Tyler, the horse-trader hero, who arrives in Havana with a string of horses (and, more to the point, a consignment of contraband guns and ammunition for the rebels) three days after the destruction of the Maine, is recognisably one of Leonard's late 20th-century heroes: a stand-up guy who says what he means, never starts a fight he doesn't mean to finish and won't take any shit from anybody. Like them,Tyler will always collect a debt - he has done time in jail for robbing banks; in each case he was taking money he was owed by one of the bank's account-holders (the same obsession is at the centre of Get Shorty and Riding the Rap). He also has dandyish tastes, particularly in hats, not unlike Marshal Raylan Givens, in Riding the Rap and Pronto.

Tyler falls in love (at first sight: Leonard has a few of his heroes do that, old softie that he is) with Amelia, the mistress of a wealthy American plantation owner, a sassy, self-determined heroine in the tradition of Karen DiCilia in Gold Coast or Mary Delaney in Cat Chaser. Together, they get involved in an extortion scam, complicated by a variety of double- crosses, not a million miles from the scams in The Switch or Bandits, which involves a thug from the Florida Everglades called Novis Crowe - presumably an ancestor of Floridan thugs Elvin Crowe and his nephew Dale in Maximum Bob, and Roland Crowe in Gold Coast.

All this means is that Leonard's fans will not be disappointed by Cuba Libre - which is not to say that the book is altogether successful. The plotting goes awry towards the end, and there are a number of superfluous characters. These include a marine called Virgil Webster who has survived the explosion on the Maine, and who acts as a rather tenuous link between Leonard's story and the big story going on outside; and a reporter called Neely Tucker, whose job seems to be to supply historical background. Leonard's generally acute ear for dialogue occasionally lets him down, too (surely a 19th-century Cuban revolutionary would have been unlikely to talk of human rights?). And despite the liberal sympathies on display, he does resort to Hispanic stereotypes - proud, touchy gallants, stone killers, or elderly peasants full of earthy, practical wisdom.

But there are treats to make up for these failings. The evocation of Cuban life is excellently done - tension and suspicion combined with an almost decadent lack of interest, summed up in a scene of marvellously throw-away comedy. A police spy who has been watching Tyler reports back to his chief that the American has bought himself a new wardrobe:

"How did it look?"

"Elegant, with a white shirt and a kerchief of a light blue shade, the kerchief his own."

Palenzuela said, "Hmmmm," nodding. "I like a kerchief sometimes."

This may not be Leonard's best novel, but it does contain some of his best writing: and he is one of the best prose stylists practising in English. It may not be a great book, but it is definitely a great read.

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