LaBrava, Elmore Leonard’s tenth crime novel, takes place in the 1980’s in South Miami Beach, Florida, a resort that is a decadent remnant of its Art Deco heyday. Into this seedy milieu the author places a varied group of characters, including such grotesques as a hustler who preys upon women and a psychopathic Cuban refugee who is a go-go dancer and car thief. Joe LaBrava, the title character, an erstwhile Secret Service man who guarded former First Lady Bess Truman, is a freelance photographer in his late thirties who prowls the streets with camera in hand.
Through his friendship with hotelman Maurice Zola, LaBrava finally meets Jean Shaw, a fiftyish former film star with whom he recalls having fallen in love when he was twelve years old. When she is brought drunk to a county crisis center one night, LaBrava takes Zola there to get her released. Richard Nobles, a private security guard and all-around thug who comes there for the same purpose, challenges LaBrava, but the physically imposing hulk is no match for the photographer, who flattens him. After a quarter of a century, LaBrava is still smitten with Shaw, and they become sexually involved. Unclear, however, is whether he is attracted to the woman or to her film images, which he vividly recalls from childhood. Adding intriguing complexity to Leonard’s carefully woven plot and characterizations is the fact that Shaw herself often confuses film fiction with real life, seemingly reenacting old screenplays in actual situations.
By winning the battle over Shaw, LaBrava earns Nobles’s enmity. The sociopath starts tailing the photographer and eventually decides to kill him with his crony Rey’s assistance. (Rey already has killed Nobles’s vengeance-seeking uncle, who believed his nephew’s false testimony led to a son’s lengthy prison term.) LaBrava, meanwhile, also stalks Nobles, unnerving his...
(The entire section is 771 words.)