Elmore Leonard wrote more than twenty novels over almost thirty years before he was discovered by critics and the mass public, making the transition from pulp entertainer to literary stylist. Leonard wrote Westerns in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and when that genre became no longer fashionable or profitable, he switched to the crime novel, a form in which, his proponents claim, he has been unmatched by any other American writer in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Leonard does not write about the same kinds of characters, settings, and situations in each book. His protagonists are policemen, criminals, and businessmen in Detroit, Miami Beach, and New Orleans. They are men living on the edge of society who find themselves caught up in situations out of their element. In responding to the pressure of these circumstances, they find that they are not the people they had seem themselves as being. In presenting such characters, Leonard, according to Jonathan Yardley, “raises the hard-boiled suspense novel beyond the limits of genre and into social commentary.”
Jack Delaney lives his life by chance. While working in a New Orleans department store, he is led by chance to a brief career modeling men’s clothing. While working on a modeling assignment, he encounters a jewel thief who is in the process of robbing the hotel room in which Jack and his employer are sleeping. This meeting leads Jack into a more exciting life as a hotel burglar. Trying to impress his girlfriend, however, he is caught and sent to prison. As Bandits opens, he has been paroled and is working for his brother-in-law, Leo Mullen, a mortician. After three years of handling mutilated corpses and smelling embalming fluid, Jack is forty and bored. Chance leads him into much more excitement than he could ever anticipate when he becomes involved in a plot to steal the money which a Contra leader has raised from wealthy American right-wingers.
Lucy Nichols accompanies Jack to a leper hospital in Carville, Louisiana, to pick up the body of a young Nicaraguan woman, Amelita Sosa, who Lucy, then a nun, helped to escape from her native country. Lucy reveals that Amelita is not really dead; she is being pursued by her former lover, Dagoberto “Bertie” Godoy, a Contra colonel who plans to kill her because he believes that she deliberately attempted to infect him with her leprosy. The former nun effortlessly begins to take control of Jack’s life, enlisting him in helping Amelita escape from Bertie.
Lucy has to explain the political situation in Nicaragua to Jack, who knows almost nothing about the Sandinistas and the Contras and does not know which side the United States government supports: “It was hard to keep the borders and the history down there straight.” Lucy takes charge of Jack’s moral education while, ironically, getting him involved in illegal activities. One of the themes of Bandits is the difficulty of distinguishing good guys from bad, the impossibility of always knowing right from wrong. Jack is willing to be instructed by Lucy because he respects her commitment to a cause and especially because she, who has spent nine years in Nicaragua, has experienced war: “This lady was not as nice as she appeared; she could show you a hard edge.”
Lucy has chosen the right man to help her. Although ordinary in most senses, Jack enjoys danger, likes taking risks, and, as can be said of most of Leonard’s heroes, can think quickly. When the thugs working for Bertie confront Jack and Lucy on their way back to New Orleans with Amelita, Jack sets off the burglar alarm at a closed service station so that they may escape.
Lucy’s efforts to combat the Contras are complicated, since her father is one of the rich Americans backing her enemies. Dick Nichols, who sells helicopters to the oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, has given sixty-five thousand dollars to Bertie, but Lucy’s plan, once Amelita is safely on a plane to Los Angeles, is to steal the colonel’s blood money. She will use half to rebuild the leper hospital which Bertie destroyed in Nicaragua, and Jack can have the other half for helping her. That Dick Nichols previously gave one hundred thousand dollars to the hospital attacked by Bertie underscores the moral ambiguities which engulf these characters. The more Lucy explains to Jack, the more confused he becomes. She says of her father, “he’s a nice guy. . . . Except his values are all screwed up.”
Jack begins recruiting accomplices, two of his fellow parolees, to help Lucy. Roy Hicks is a tough-guy bartender who was once a New Orleans policeman. Tommy “Cully” Cullen is a sixty-five-year-old bank robber who has just been released after twenty-seven years in jail. Jack rescues him from another form of prison, a nursing home. Jack intends to use Roy’s police skills and menacing demeanor together with Cully’s knowledge of banks to find some way to sting Bertie. They are willing to take part in the scheme because they, like Jack, are bored.
The dangers posed by the operation are obvious—Lucy has told many atrocious stories about Bertie and his troops. Then Roy investigates Bertie’s henchmen and discovers that Crispin Reyna, a Cuban-born Nicaraguan, has a criminal record in Florida and has been suspected of gunrunning and drug pushing. Franklin de Dios, a Miskito Indian, has been a suspect in a triple homicide in Miami. Roy also...
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