BOOK REVIEW / A hearty splash of Italian dressing: 'Pronto' - Elmore Leonard: Viking, 14.99 pounds - Giles Smith explores the comic ineptitude of the poetic criminals who inhabit the new novel by Elmore Leonard

Let's get this out of the way early: the new Elmore Leonard novel is set substantially in Italy. Yes, Italy. Not Miami, not Detroit, not even Texas, but Italy. As such, we must all be prepared for words we had never thought to find in this author's pages: words like 'autostrada', 'Fiat' and 'Ezra Pound'.

It's all very alarming, going in. Few writers are more American than Elmore Leonard. Or, to put it another way, few writers are less Italian. You wonder how Leonard's criminals are going to cope over there, with the pathetically small cars, the severe shortage of malls, the worryingly slim range of black- market weaponry, the foreign language. How will Leonard cope, for that matter, miles from the nearest Nacos Tacos?

But then you think about it, and maybe it's not such a disruption. All the way from Mr Majestyk, through Stick to Maximum Bob and last year's Rum Punch, Leonard has written about people for whom life is, in effect, one long culture clash, even at home - who dress wrongly and stand out when they want to blend in, who drink and eat unhappy things, who sometimes think and often say they're doing fine, but mostly know they're screwing up. So why not in Italy?

Pronto eases us in as if ready for our resistance. We open reassuringly in Palm Beach, where Harry Arno is a small-time local celebrity. Wolfie's keeps a 'Harry Arno' on the sandwich menu (pastrami, mozzarella with tomatoes and onions, 'a splash of Italian dressing') but Harry has grown sick of it and can't order it any more - a predicament which must be fairly common, though this might be its first entry in literature.

Eighty pages later, Harry is off to Rapallo. He's forced over there because his boss, the Mob man Jimmy Cap, has discovered that Harry has been skimming a little off the profits for himself. And who tipped off Jimmy Cap? The police, who want to pressure Harry into shopping Cap. You can't trust anyone these days.

Harry, who is 66, has a lover, but 'for as long as he'd known Joyce Patton, he had always wondered if he shouldn't be doing better.' As for Joyce, 'all those years, it was funny, she always felt she could do better than Harry Arno.' Leonard is on sharp form with these two; he nails them and their partnership inside a page and a half of dialogue.

Harry chooses Rapallo because he was there in the war. (Incidentally, if Joyce Patton is any relation to General George Patton - another American who had a turbulent spell in Italy - then we're not told.) Harry delivered deserters to the prison where Ezra Pound was held and got a glimpse of the poet in his reinforced cell.

Slightly less plausibly, he also claims to have been alongside Pound at the precise moment when the poet came up with the line 'The ant's a centaur in his dragon world'. But Harry may be making this up - poetic license, as it were. In fiction, we're used to seeing an interest in poetry (like a private passion for jazz) used as shorthand for the sensitivity behind a hard man's muscle. Leonard is never that cheap. Chief among Harry's reasons for admiring Pound is that the poet contrived to have his misstress move in with his wife. 'The man was a genius,' says Harry. 'You're taking someone else's word for that,' says Joyce. To which Harry replies, 'Sure, why not?'

Leonard's crooks tend to be bad not so much in the sense of criminally depraved, morally evil, as in the sense of incompetent, duff. No- one has caught the slowness of the criminal mind quite so precisely, or worked it for so much humour. And Pronto can be said to plumb new depths of ineptitude. You thought you'd heard it all in Rum Punch when Louis Gara tried to hold up a liquor store by pointing with his finger in his pocket. (The storekeeper uttered the immortal line, 'Why don't you take your finger out of there and stick it in your ass while I go get my shotgun.') Now, though, meet Benno and Marco.

Dispatched to track down Harry's Italian home, they've been to an estate agent and looked at a photograph of the building. But they can't be certain, even when they're standing on the drive. 'The reason they weren't entirely sure, they didn't have the photograph with them.' It's just a passing detail, dropped onto the end of a paragraph and left there. A less controlled writer might have worked up some jokey scene later in which the stalkers berated each other for forgetfulness. Here it quietly becomes part of the background of incompetence which is with you throughout the book, like a persistent, low-voltage electric hum. Leonard's first books were Westerns and to the extent that you wouldn't trust most of his characters to re-wire your house or fix your garage door, he's still writing about cowboys, 31 novels later.

As ever, dialogue drives the narrative with, in the gaps, internal monologues in which Leonard disappears. He's been working at this vanishing trick for years now, and his manifesto just gets clearer: eliminate articles, definite and indefinite; burn off all excess pronouns; clamp down hard on adjectives; strip out verbs occasionally; collapse the syntax and tamper with the grammatical logic. And if you are as adept as Elmore Leonard in Pronto, you come up with something as tonally suggestive as this: 'Harry could eat deli and he could eat Cuban if he was careful, not load up on the black beans. What he couldn't get used to were all the new places that served tofu and polenta, pesto sauce on everything. Sun- dried cherries and walnuts on grouper, for Christ sake.'

So where do you file Leonard these days? 'Crime Fiction' won't really do - the novels are only loosely narratives of detection. And nor are they 'Thrillers', except in as much as the pace quickens at the close. 'Mystery' doesn't cover it - there's very little that isn't plain as day in these books. It's a tough one. What about Great Writing? Great Writing sounds about right.

Pronto is published by Viking at pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)

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