Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard published novels for parts of seven decades (1953-2012) and more than twenty of his books were made into theatrical or television movies.  Leonard began his career writing westerns but turned to crime fiction, the genre for which he is best known today, in the 1960s.  By the time Pagan Babies was published in 2000, Leonard (who died in 2013 at age 87) had begun to slow his pace considerably but did later have great success with work that was turned into the television series Justified.

Pagan Babies exhibits many of the traits that Elmore Leonard fans have come to love over the author’s long career. It is filled with long, quirky conversations that do as much to develop the novel’s characters – and even the plot – as anything else Leonard has to say about them.  As is usually the case with Leonard, the plot moves along quickly but is subject to veering to the left or right at short notice because of the sheer ineptness of some of the novel’s characters.  Elmore Leonard never seemed to have a very high opinion of the average intelligence of the criminal population, and it shows again in Pagan Babies.

For reasons best kept to himself, Father Terry Dunn decides to leave his Rwanda church and return to his hometown of Detroit.  That he witnessed the massacre by machete of forty-seven church members during his last Mass, and that the bodies are still inside the church weeks later, does have more than a little to do with his decision, but it does not tell the whole story.  Now, despite having left Detroit five years earlier under a tax-fraud indictment, Father Dunn is willing to take his chances there.  So armed with scores of pictures of Rwandan orphans and mutilated bodies, he comes home hoping to dodge the tax-fraud indictment and raise a little money for the orphans.

Elmore Leonard
But is Terry Dunn really a priest?  He certainly doesn’t convince the two main women in his life at the moment, his sister-in-law and Debbie Dewey, a woman who sometimes works for his brother.  In Terry Dunn, Debbie Dewey (who has just completed a three-year sentence for aggravated assault) sees a kindred spirit.  And she may just be right because Terry seems to feel the same way about her.  So when Debbie explains her plan to recover the $67,000 her ex-boyfriend stole from her, the pair joins forces in a complicated scheme they hope will net each of them considerably more than that amount. 

 Remember, though, that this is an Elmore Leonard novel and soon enough a whole cast of dimwits is going to appear just in time to gum up the works, including Mutt, perhaps the dumbest hit-man in the history of crime fiction (and my favorite character in the book). 

Pagan Babies may not quite be Elmore Leonard in his prime, but it is still a damn fine crime novel.  Take a look.

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