A Coyote's in the House, by Elmore Leonard

A master of tension takes his foot off the gas
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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time, children's writers were routinely asked the irritating question, "When are you going to write for grown-ups?" Now, it's more likely to be the other way round. A children's novel has become a must-have item on the adult writer's CV. One American crime writer, Carl Hiaasen, has already done it with Hoot. Not to be outdone, another - the great Elmore Leonard - has weighed in with his first book for children.

Once upon a time, children's writers were routinely asked the irritating question, "When are you going to write for grown-ups?" Now, it's more likely to be the other way round. A children's novel has become a must-have item on the adult writer's CV. One American crime writer, Carl Hiaasen, has already done it with Hoot. Not to be outdone, another - the great Elmore Leonard - has weighed in with his first book for children.

According to the strapline, A Coyote's in the House reads like "a PG-rated Tarantino movie". This is the story of Antwan, a coyote who lives wild up in the Hollywood Hills with his gang, the Diablos. It's quite obvious that Antwan, were he human, would be black and played in the movie by Samuel L Jackson or Denzil Washington.

"All Antwan and his gang wanted to to do was hang with the pack, goof around, groom each other for ticks and fleas, flirt with the sisters and mostly chase after whatever kinds of creatures were out of their holes."

Leonard captures the rhythms and grammar of Black Urban Vernacular in the speech of Antwan and his friends. They call one another "man" and greet one another by saying "wassup"; pronouns and auxiliary verbs, and the word "if", are systematically omitted. It sounds thoroughly authentic - except for the absence of swearing, but then, this is a children's book. It's a neat trick to make coyotes talk like gangstas, and Leonard pulls it off with style. But is there anything beyond this trick?

At the end of chapter one we are promised, "At this moment the most amazing adventure of Antwan's young life was about to begin." And I have to say that this is a cheque that's never cashed.

Antwan makes the acquaintance of Buddy, a German shepherd dog and pampered former film-star, and his friend and cohabitant Miss Betty, a cream-coloured show poodle. Buddy has a daring proposal: he and Antwan should trade places. Buddy's tired of being a pet and wants to run with the pack up in the hills, while Antwan wouldn't mind being fed twice a day for a change.

Well, the plan is carried out. Antwan ingratiates himself with Buddy's owners, moves into the house and passes as a domestic animal; later, Buddy has a brief excursion with the pack and covers himself in glory. A sub-plot involves the kidnap of a cat named Lola. But none of this is properly "done"; it all seems rather perfunctory.

There's very little tension, which is odd, since in his adult crime novels Leonard is a master of tension. Also, there's no sense of danger here. Conscious that he's writing for children, Leonard has taken his foot off the gas. The pace and streetwise style of this book may well appeal to young readers. But I think they will feel shortchanged on the story.

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