Take an ex-con stand up comedian who has been swindled out of thousands of dollars, her ex-boyfriend that has come into millions of dollars, a machete toting ex-smuggler pretending to be a priest looking to scam parishioners, a muscle head ex-boxer looking to become a kill-for-hire, throw a mob boss into the mix, and you have the makings of Elmore Leonard's latest novel, Pagan Babies. Much of the plot is reminiscent of Get Shorty (throw a bunch of offbeat characters together and have them scheme against each other) and Out of Sight, (the instant attraction and chemistry two people have for each other) both of which were successful and critically acclaimed films as well. Pagan Babies, it seems, hopes to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. Indeed, like many of Leonard's novels, portions feel like a movie script rather than prose.
That stated, the first few chapters of the story are unlike anything you would expect in Leonard's writing. Set in post-genocide Rwanda, "Father" Terry Dunn is haunted by memories of Hutus killing Tutsis during mass. His housekeeper Chantell is missing an arm from a Hutu attack. Although the violence had taken place over five years ago, the country is still trying to recover from the carnage. As is Dunn. After one of the Hutus confesses participation in the attack the occurred in the church, he decides he's had enough of Africa, settles his accounts, and shoots the Hutu and his friends as they sit drinking banana beer.
Cut to Detroit. Terry's brother introduces him to Debbie Dewey, a recently released convict who is trying her hand at standup comedy. Featuring prominently into her act is her ex-boyfriend who swindled her out of a large chunk of change. Also featured is her experiences of trying to run him over with her car, the resulting trial, and prison life.
When the two meet, the sparks fly. She catches on quickly that he is not a priest. He is relieved he doesn't have to pretend around her. As their romance flowers, the plans for getting money blossom as well. Debbie wants to get money from her old boyfriend who married poor but divorced rich. Terry is trying to create a fund for the "pagan babies" of Rwanda to take "donations" from caring churchgoers.
Unfortunately, as in many Elmore Leonard yarns, the thrill of the scam is the common element that holds them together. Their plan changes countlessly throughout the course of the novel, but once they obtain their desired riches, the relationship fizzles. The person that actually ends up with the goods may surprise you.
Minor characters scam against each other, adding to the suspense of the book. The ex-boyfriend (Randy) tries to kill the local mob boss running prostitutes out of his restaurant. The mob boss (Vincent Moraco) tries to have Terry killed. The ex-boxer (Mutt) who has agreed to kill them both ("Yeah I'll do'er.") works for Tony Amilia, who in turn controls Moraco. The cross scheming leads to unexpected twists and turns. In Leonard's world everyone has and angle; everyone has a scheme. Atrocities turn into opportunities for a scam. Just when you think a scam is going as expected, someone changes the rules. Again, the person that actually ends up with the money may surprise you.
Although Pagan Babies has trademark Leonard characters, themes, and plot devices, the last third of the novel is utterly compelling. I could not put the book down. The schemes cross currents, eddy together, divide, only to meet again in unexpected ways. As do the characters. It's what makes Pagan Babies a welcome addition to the Leonard library.
All text (C) 2000 LCB
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