(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Geherin, David. Elmore Leonard. New York: Continuum, 1989. The first full-length study of Leonard. Starts with a short biography and then summarizes and analyzes the novels and some stories. The last chapter, “Why Is Elmore Leonard So Good?”, makes a good case for Leonard as a major American writer, and the bibliography is a useful research tool.

Hynes, Joseph. “ High Noon in Detroit:’ Elmore Leonard’s Career.” Journal of Popular Culture 25 (Winter, 1991): 181-186. Hynes examines several books by Leonard, demonstrating that Leonard’s works are superior to mainstream mystery stories. Although Leonard is well regarded by his colleagues, some critics have awarded him a lower rating than he deserves.

Leonard, Elmore. “A Conversation with . . . Elmore Leonard.” Interview by Lewis Burke Frumkes. The Writer 110 (November, 1997): 22-24. Leonard discusses the writing process, revealing that he does not plot a novel before he begins to write. He also prefers to write from the point of view of various characters and makes use of dialogue to advance the story. Although it does not discuss LaBrava directly, this is a useful interview that offers interesting insight into Leonard’s thought processes as he writes.

Millner, Cork. “Elmore Leonard: The Best Ear in the Business.” Writer’s Digest 77 (June, 1997): 30-32. Millner points out that Leonard is a master at capturing the sound or voice of his characters. Millner discusses other aspects of technique, including developing an ear for dialogue.

Prescott, P. S. “Making a Killing.” Newsweek 105 (April 22, 1985): 62-64. Focusing upon Leonard’s belated emergence as a widely recognized popular writer, this article also provides a useful review of his themes.

Reed, J. D. “A Dickens from Detroit.” Time 123 (May 28, 1984): 84-85. Discusses LaBrava and then considers themes and techniques.

Shah, Diane K. “For Elmore Leonard, Crime Pays.” Rolling Stone (February 28, 1985): 33-34. A useful biographical as well as critical piece. Includes an interview with the author in which he is characteristically frank.

Yagoda, Ben. “Elmore Leonard’s Rogues’ Gallery.” The New York Times Magazine, December 30, 1984, p. 20. A well-informed and in-depth review of Leonard’s career and literary production. Yagoda’s emphasis is on Leonard’s crime fiction.