September 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Pagan Babies

Current Status
In Season
Elmore Leonard
, Fiction
We gave it an A

God bless Elmore Leonard. As the venerable author of Get Shorty and Out of Sight approaches his 75th birthday, he could’ve kicked back and turned out another expertly plotted caper set on the Detroit-Miami-L.A. criminal axis he’s so often explored. But that would’ve been too easy. This time he’s thrown Rwanda into the mix.

Leonard’s latest novel, Pagan Babies, opens with the bone-chilling image of 47 mutilated bodies rotting in a Rwandan church. A parish priest (or is he?), American expatriate Terry Dunn witnessed the massacre of these Tutsi natives by Hutu marauders five years earlier and has been trying to arrange for proper burials ever since. The writer carves a deeply ingrained portrait of the African nation, a land where the locals slurp banana beer from long tin troughs and a Tutsi asks in confession for God’s forgiveness in advance before he kills his Hutu enemy. ”Hit him in the mouth as hard as you can, with a rock,” Terry counsels him irreverently. ”You’ll feel better.”

Terry eventually returns to his (and Leonard’s) home turf of Michigan, but the ghosts of Rwanda haunt the rest of the story, as Terry can’t escape the gruesome memories. It turns out he had fled the U.S. while under a tax-fraud indictment for a cigarette-smuggling scheme. Accepting the help of big brother Fran, a personal-injury lawyer, Terry meets investigator Debbie Dewey. A former go-go girl and aspiring stand-up comedian, she’s recently been released from a Florida prison for assaulting her ex-boyfriend with a deadly weapon — a Ford Escort, to be exact.

Con artist Terry and ex-con Debbie are instantly drawn to each other, and together they hatch a plan to shake down her swindling old beau, Randy Agley, who’s now the owner of a swanky restaurant in downtown Detroit. What follows is a string of double crosses and near misses with death, as the Mafia inevitably becomes involved. Briskly paced (at only 263 pages — N.B., J.K. Rowling and Tom Clancy), Pagan Babies skitters along to its movingly unconventional ending.

A fascinating paradox of a man, Terry possesses the capacity for both brutal violence and profound compassion. He’s matched in complexity by Debbie, a smart, tart cookie who channels her anger and aggression into her darkly funny monologues. The supporting cast is similarly multicolored — from Chantelle Nyamwase, Terry’s one-armed Rwandan housekeeper, to Searcy J. Bragg Jr. (a.k.a. the Mutt), an Indiana-born wiseguy who’s not as dumb as he seems.

Leonard provides these characters with his trademark note-perfect dialogue. ”I didn’t have enough tit to be a star,” Debbie recalls of her abbreviated exotic-dancing career. ”And really, to do it for a living you have to be on crack.” Every time mobbed-up lawyer Ed Bernacki uses the word Mafia, he appends it with the phrase ” … if in fact such an organization exists.” And when the Mutt is asked if he’d whack a Catholic priest, he reasons, ”I guess it’s okay, I’m Baptist.”

Like Quentin Tarantino (who turned the author’s Rum Punch into Jackie Brown), Leonard peppers his writing with pop-culture references; On the Town, Andy Garcia, and My Dinner With André are invoked on one page of Pagan Babies alone. He’s not above taking a few well-placed shots, either. The worst part of prison life, Debbie says, was being forced to watch Family Matters (”Urkel’s a nerdy black kid with the most annoying voice I’ve ever heard,” she says. ”And the ladies in the dorm’d cry laughing at him.”)

It’s this kind of evocative detail that makes Pagan Babies such a pleasure. You can’t help but feel a visceral thrill when Leonard describes goon Vincent Moraco’s mistress as having ”the whitest legs Vincent had ever seen in his life, like f—in marble. Except they were always warm you ran a hand up them.”

Yet this is more than just an accumulation of brilliant moments. The ambitious scope of Pagan Babies marks it as a literary leap forward for its creator. The Rwandan motif lends the book a gravitas lacking from his more lighthearted efforts. ”With practice, you could become a visionary,” Chantelle tells Terry. With nearly a half century of practice, Elmore Leonard has become one as well. A

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