Quick on the draw

Hugo Barnacle on the latest thriller from Elmore Leonard; Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard Viking, pounds 15

Bringing in his man, US Marshal Raylan Givens gets bushwhacked by another couple of desperadoes, turns the tables, brings these two in as well. On the way to jail he tells them about a rich, miserable drunk he knows, name of Harry. "He isn't bothering me any, he's his own problem. Same as you fellas. I don't take what you did personally. You understand? Want to lean on you. Or wish you any more state time 'n you deserve. What you'll have to do now is ride the rap, as they say. It's all anybody has to do."

You can almost see the cactuses against the sunset and hear the music swell. Except this isn't the end, it's the beginning. They aren't in the desert out west, they're in Palm Beach, Florida. And they aren't on horses, they're aboard a blue two-year-old Cadillac which the Marshals Service has confiscated after some federal bust or other.

However, Marshal Givens does wear, at all times and in all places, a cowboy hat. Elmore Leonard is playing on his own early reputation as a writer of westerns, made before he switched to urban thrillers, the modern equivalent.

Despite packing a Beretta automatic instead of a Colt .45, Raylan is a quick-draw artist, and is keeping a low profile on the Fugitive Apprehension team because the US Attorney didn't like the way he gunned down a mafia hood (bad guy) in a restaurant (saloon). "I gave him 24 hours to get out of Dade County," protested Raylan. "Tommy Bucks was sitting at that table when his time ran out. Armed ... What happened then, Tommy Bucks drew on me and I shot him."

Raylan's girlfriend Joyce, who was in the restaurant at the time, didn't like it either. (Men are men and women are women.) She has since been spending more time with her ex, the hopeless Harry.

Harry is, or at least was, a bookie, and to bulk up his retirement bundle he hires a Puerto Rican hitman called Bobby Deogracias to collect some of the worst debts, starting with the $16,500 owed by one Chip Canz, another hopeless case still living in his senile mother's mansion. Being Hispanic, and this being an Elmore Leonard novel, Bobby is a complete sociopath, so Ganz hires him to help kidnap Harry instead and hold him incommunicado, Lebanon-style, until he tells them how to get hold of his offshore millions.

Along with Canz's other goon, known as Louis the Bahamian, they lift Harry by getting a pretty young fortune-teller to offer him hypnosis at her place. They simply carry him out while he's under, as it were.

As always with Leonard there are these wishful, even fantastical elements that don't fit in with the wittily observed lowlife environment. Hypnosis is not an altered state of consciousness, it's only assisted auto-suggestion. The subject doesn't go under, he merely relaxes, and the idea that he wouldn't notice a couple of large brown men kidnapping him is a bit silly.

At Joyce's bidding, Raylan Givens reluctantly gets on the trail. His first lead is Dawn, the pretty fortune-teller, who was seen talking to Harry. It's unclear whether she really has psychic powers or not. We discover she makes a habit of abruptly telling men, "You're trying to imagine what I look like without my clothes on," which doesn't take much supernatural insight, and at the end Raylan tells her, "I think you see things the same way I do except you believe you have a gift".

Leonard, however, does make her come out with all kinds of information she couldn't have gathered by normal means. At a second look the text ought to show where she gets her clues or cues, but there aren't any. Which makes her an implausibly good guesser.

Elmore Leonard's climactic shootouts, too, tend to be unconvincing. The good guy can always draw in less time than it takes the bad guy, who already has him covered, to just pull the trigger. Leonard mocks western conventions - Bobby keeps practising absurdly for a high-noon showdown with the marshal - but he also obeys them.

His greatest strengths are his economical style, distinctly sharp characterisations, properly researched backgrounds and a fine knack of holding the interest. His books are like the kind of B-movies that often turned out better than the main features.

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