LaBrava by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"LaBrava got Nobles down on his spine, head hard against the wall to straddle his legs. Worked free the bluesteel revolver [...] and slipped the blunt end of the barrel into his open mouth. Nobles gagged, trying to twist free.
LaBrava said, 'Suck on it. It'll calm you down.'"
Not an easy review to write as I am forced to demonstrate my own incompetence. Elmore Leonard's LaBrava received the prestigious Edgar Award for the best novel in 1984 and yet I have been unable to find anything remarkable about the book. While readers are not expected to fully agree with literary critics my disagreement with the Edgars' jury is rather vehement: LaBrava has a moderately interesting story, but then nothing else stands out. Flat characterizations, stereotypes, and uninspired prose. I have always believed that the art of writing should be the most important criterion when judging a book, not whether it tells a good story. Well, I might have been wrong.
The scene is Florida in the early 1980s, much changed for the worse in comparison with the golden times of 40 or 50 years earlier. We meet a once famous movie actress, Jean, her close friend Maurice, a professional photographer, real estate owner and manager, and Joe LaBrava, an ex-government operative with Secret Service experience. Two hustlers round off the set of main characters. The opening scene in a County Crisis Center is quite interesting: all characters appear here and the men are looking for Jean who overindulged in alcohol and caused a street scene. The author then takes about a hundred pages to leisurely build the criminal intrigue. It is only about page 150 that the reader begins to realize what the plot is all about. I did not particularly enjoy the denouement although it is reasonably elegant and not that implausible.
I have a serious problem with characterizations: I don't feel the protagonists of LaBrava are real people - they are just vehicles to move the plot, instances of cliché templates of certain types of people. We have a "big hunk of a man with a tiny brain," a "small hustler short on imagination but long on criminal history" and a "basically good guy torn between his sense of duty and his heart." The plot includes many little side stories that may be interesting to readers who like to learn about how it supposedly is in the real world of crime, yet I fail to grasp how these stories contribute to the novel.
The intrigue - while ingenious - is just a movie plot. The novel reads exactly like a script for a potentially successful crime movie, but is this really enough to make the story a good novel? Let me paraphrase the viciously biting critique of an author (I am substituting Mr. Leonard for Mr. Crichton) offered by Martin Amis in his
The War Against Cliché
"Story is what Mr. Leonard is good at. People are what he is not so good at. People and prose." On the positive side, I quite like the clever connection of the plot with 1950s movies and the tastefully written love scene. The Florida sense of place comes across a little, certainly better than the psychology stereotypes. The characters talk in a language used by "people in the know", for instance, we hear them talk about "the coast" - only one coast is "the coast" in this country of two coasts.
Worth a read? Certainly, if one reads books solely for the story.
Two and a half stars.
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