Father Figure

A Rwandan priest, a connected restaurant owner and a stand-up comic thirsting for revenge. Yes, Elmore Leonard's back in town.

Elmore Leonard has always been one of the greatest practitioners of the modern crime novel - his "Get Shorty" still ranks as one of the most cynical Hollywood novels ever, while the follow-up, "Be Cool", was almost as memorable. And now Leonard is back, with a story about a crooked priest, a connected restaurant owner and a convicted felon, each trying to pull a fast one on the other.

Father Terry Dunn is a priest in a Rwandan village; he spends most of his time with a bottle of Johnnie Walker, occasionally stirring himself to dole out penance to the villagers...until the arrogance of four young Hutu killers causes him to administer his own brand of violent justice. Unfortunately, the upshot is that Dunn is forced to leave Rwanda on the next place, and he winds up in Detroit, where his broether, a successful attorney lives, and where Dunn bumps into Debbie Dewey, a fast-talking stand-up comic just out of prison after attempting to run her boyfriend Randy down with a Ford Escort.

Debbie's intent on getting back the money Randy swindled out of her, and she hatches a scheme to con him out of it with Dunn's help. But Randy is connected to the Detroit Mob via Tony Amilia, and Debbie's scheme forces him to begin thinking about quick, lethal solutions to his problem. Before long, Dunn, Dewey, Amilia and a bunch of other assorted lowlifes collide in a wonderfully-complex mishmash of tangled motives and double- and triple-crosses. Who will keep the money? Will Debbie ever make it as a stand-up comic? And is Father Terry Dunn really a priest?

"Pagan Babies" is Leonard at his best - the action never slows, loyalties shift with the unpredictability of a roulette wheel, and the characters keep on surprising you. As with other Leonard novels, most of the character development takes place via the conversations between the protagonists, and his ear for dialogue is as acute as ever. In particular, the bumbling hitman Mutt is an inspired creation, one I hope to see again in a future Leonard novel. Until then, "Pagan Babies" is well-equipped to keep you laughing.

This article was first published on07 Mar 2001.