Elmore Leonard couldn’t write a bad crime novel if he tried. (He could and did write a bad novel—called Touch—but that was, believe it or not, a religious fantasy.) So bad is not the word for this summer’s annual Leonard entry, Rum Punch, a thriller about gun selling and money smuggling set in the sleazier regions of Palm Beach, Fla. Unfortunately, good isn’t the word either—because this is Leonard’s weakest suspense in recent memory. Who knows? Maybe after three distinctly different winners in a row (Killshot, Get Shorty, and Maximum Bob), it was inevitable that Leonard’s inspiration would flag.
Problem One: nobody to care about. Not heroine Jackie Burke, a smart and sexy flight attendant who’s caught by the Feds sneaking heavy cash into the U.S. from the Bahamas for homicidal gem dealer Ordell Robbie. True, there’s some initial interest in Jackie’s dilemma: Should she rat on Ordell (dangerous), go to prison till she’s 50 (depressing), or figure out another option? But the lady remains only a snazzy sketch, impressively gutsy under pressure yet disappointingly shallow. Her employer/nemesis, the ruthless Ordell, is equally two-dimensional-unlike the weirdly engaging villains who’ve made previous Leonard books so riveting. And even ex-cop Max Cherry, the likable middle-aged bail bondsman who falls hard for Jackie, seems like a first draft for a real Elmore Leonard character.
Problem Two: not enough surprises, too many corpses. Leonard, master of the zigzag, twist-tie plot, has nothing up his sleeve this time. Jackie, with Max’s help, concocts a mildly ingenious scheme to escape from both the Feds and Ordell, and to net $500,000 in the process. But the scam’s a replay of the old bait and switch. The complications—mostly provided by Ordell’s three cartoonish girlfriends (who might as well be called Raunchy, Greedy, and Dopey)—seem tacked on. And the violence, especially in a dead-end subplot involving Ordell’s theft of an arsenal from a local neo-Nazi leader, is high velocity but low impact. Readers who remember the wallop delivered by the killing near the end of Maximum Bob will find nothing remotely similar here: The bodies drop, at regular intervals, with hollow thuds.
So why isn’t Rum Punch a bad book? Because Leonard’s eye for detail—the nuts and bolts of the bail-bonding business, the food served at a trendy art-gallery opening—has lost none of its squinty precision. Because his ear for edgy, droll dialogue guarantees that every few pages there’ll be a memorable exchange. Because his storytelling, even without a grade-A story to tell, remains lean, rhythmic, and colorful. Is Leonard, in his 30th novel, just coasting? Sure looks that way. But he has earned his right, if anybody has, and there isn’t another writer I’d rather coast along with.