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Books: Rum do

John Williams on the guru of cool
Cuba Libre

by Elmore Leonard

Viking, pounds 16.99

Forty-five years after he published his first novel, Elmore Leonard is well and truly in vogue. Hollywood movies are showing up like buses in groups of three. More significantly, Leonard's vision - his neutral tone, his wise-cracking criminals, his recognition that villains live in the same world as us, eat the same junk food, watch the same movies - has become the starting-point for a whole generation of US writers.

"Elmore Leonard" the phenomenon is well and truly hip. Leonard the writer, however, is 72 years old: his recent novels have begun to show the strain of trying to keep up with his success. His best books were written in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Back then, you sensed that the villains were people he knew, folks he'd hung out with in the Detroit bars. By the Nineties, however, you rather sense that, for this now teetotal and world-famous author, villains are guys you instal burglar alarms against. A certain misanthropy crept into the novels, while the Hollywood breakthrough Get Shorty seemed empty and calculated.

It's something a relief to report that, with , Leonard has given up on hip and written what one can only assume is the book he wanted to write - a historical novel set in Cuba during the Spanish American War. This is a thoroughly old-fashioned kind of a good read. It has a clean-cut American hero, Ben Tyler, a femme fatale with a heart of gold, and a couple of black-hatted villains, the Spanish torturer Lionel Tavalera and the American landowner Rollie Boudreaux. It has a backdrop of historical events (the sinking of the USS Maine, the Charge of San Juan Hill) and combines a rattling adventure yarn with a star-crossed love story. If it were a film it would be a Sunday afternoon special made in 1953, shot in glorious Technicolor, starring Victor Mature and Jean Simmons.

Leonard's career as a novelist began in that year with a Western called The Bounty Hunters, and for the next decade he was one of the most successful Western writers of his day. harks back to these books. This is essentially a Western set in Cuba. Ben Tyler is a cowboy, suckered into bringing a string of horses to Havana as a cover for running guns to the rebels. There's even an American Indian, a marine named Virgil Webster, who assists Tyler. Where sadly differs, however, is in its bloated length: 350 pages is long for a format as traditionally lean and mean as the Western. And too much of the excess is made up of research chucked in surprisingly crudely.

Leonard is indulging himself by delivering his historical hobbyhorses dressed up as fiction. That the result is so readable, so studded with memorable minor characters, simply offers further proof that he remains one of the great storytellers of our time. And that he's also some way beyond hip.