BOOK REVIEW / Gentlemen prefer bonds, according to Max: 'Rum Punch' - Elmore Leonard: Viking, 14.99

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ONE of the most striking features of modern publishing is its determination that novelists knuckle down and produce a new book each year, as if we can't remember anyone's name for much longer than that in the torrential downpour of other titles. Elmore Leonard has never seemed to mind: for two decades he has obligingly come up with a witty and laconic crime saga just in time to coincide with the paperback of last year's.

Every autumn, from Detroit, would come a new one. They had lovely casual names like Swag, The Switch, Stick, LaBrava, Glitz, Bandits and Freaky Deaky, not making a fuss or anything, have to call them something, don't you? They won glowing reviews - for Leonard's growing legion of fans the arrival of the latest Elmore was, as one critic put it, like Christmas morning - without quite cracking the commercial big time.

They weren't your usual thrillers. They weren't whodunnits or whydunnits or howdunnits; they didn't even have much of a what-happened-next element. Elmore Leonard cut his teeth on westerns - Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Forty Lashes Less One - and at some point realised that the modern world was every bit as full of cowboys as the wild west. But he retained, in his urban picaresques, an amoral, man-alone-travelling- light feeling, not to mention an alarming and precise interest in guns.

Usually the books featured a huddle of wisecracking, mixed-race low-lifers engaged on some sort of modest scam that probably wouldn't work anyway. They were in-and-out-of-jail types, ripping off cars, looking for an angle, nothing too big, just enough to keep them in Hawaiian shirts for a while.

The plots were good to women: often, things would start spinning when Mickey or Jackie or Cini started wondering what would happen if she gave up being little Miss Cute, the way everyone thought she was, and kicked the guy right there, see, like that. Always, the stories were buried in fluent idiomatic dialogues and interior monologues. Leonard seemed to have taken one look at the traditional way of narrating a scene, the author saying what went where and who said what, and decided to skip all that part and just repeat what the people said. It was irresistible.

It still is. Rum Punch takes only a sentence, only a clause, to beckon us into a unique rhetorical world.

'Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.

'Young skinhead Nazis,' Ordell said. 'Look, even little Nazigirls marching down Worth Avenue. You believe it? Coming now you have the Klan, not too many here today. Some in green, must be the conehead's new spring shade. Behind them it looks like some Bikers for Racism.' '

Nearly everything in an Elmore Leonard novel is described by someone like Ordell, in an intense, dramatic method which invites readers to fill in the gaps. Two-letter words are shrugged aside, and the author refuses to deal in dull nothings like: On a bright Sunday morning in Miami, Florida, a group of Nazi protesters marched down Worth Avenue. . . Everything that isn't seen from the character's point of view is ruthlessly condensed to a mere 'Sunday'.

Rum Punch follows a familiar pattern: Ordell and Louis team up with an air hostess called Jackie ('You a stewardess, huh? Work for the airlines? What I was wondering, they pay pretty good?') to smuggle money in from Freeport, Grand Bahama. When she's caught with the cash she makes friends with a bail bondsman, Max Cherry - the business card says 'Gentlemen Prefer Bonds'. She'll hand Ordell to the cops if they'll drop charges, and meanwhile she and Max aim to swipe the next shipment from under everyone's nose. There are easily enough twists and turns in to keep everyone talking, which is why we're interested in the first place.

Actually, Rum Punch is familiar in another way. The third chapter of The Switch (1978) begins like this: 'Sunday, a nice sunny day, Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara were out for a ride in Ordell's tan Ford van. What made it stylish was the black-yellow-red stripe of paint worn low around the van's boxy hips. The tan van for the tan man, Ordell said.'

The Switch tells the story of another ill-fated criminal expedition by Ordell and Louis - they try to blackmail a businessman by kidnapping his wife, but it turns out the man can't wait to get rid of her, so there's nothing doing. It features the same Freeport banker and the same girl: 'Melody . . . Mel something . . . Melanie, that's it'. She's 30 in Rum Punch, so in 1978 she must have been only, well, let's just say precocious.

So for his new book Leonard has borrowed old characters as well as an old plot. He can't even think of a new day. Only difference is, he doesn't bother to tell us that the sun is shining. In theory, none of this matters in the slightest. Leonard is one of those writers whose verbal universe is so coherent and his own that you almost expect characters from previous books to turn up and greet each other like old friends.

But in conjuring up a book published 14 years ago, Leonard has invited a comparison which does not do Rum Punch too many favours. Something like mannerism seems, every now and then, to fall on the language. You can see the man's hands moving: the rhetorical effects look a bit like mere tricks. Words such as 'skinny' crop up just a few times too often. Seeking inspiration in an old song, Leonard has remembered the tune, but not all the words have stuck.

Still, what a tune. At the end of Rum Punch, on the brink of his first major crime, Max Cherry prepares for action: 'What do you wear to walk off with a half million bucks? Go casual, with running shoes, or dress up? Max gave it some thought and put on his tan poplin suit with a blue shirt and navy tie.' I bet he looked like a half million dollars.