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 prey by surreptitiously taking pictures of him, which he uses to forestall an attempt by Nobles and Rey to shake down local merchants. Paralleling this petty extortion scheme, which amounts to a few hundred dollars per store, is a much more ambitious plan. Nobles also has been preying upon Jean Shaw after she had encouraged his attention. Her attitude toward him is ambivalent, but they soon become partners in crime, although she may be setting him up for a big fall. This lack of certainty about Shaw’s motives and the ambiguous morality that is central to her character is an aspect of the illusion-versus-reality motif that Leonard develops throughout the novel. All of this adds depth and resonance to the novel, qualities not often present in crime fiction.
In the main story line, Shaw receives a crudely typed extortion note threatening her with death unless she follows subsequent instructions demanding the payment of $600,000. Since she barely has enough income on which to live, such a sum is far beyond her means to raise, so she looks to Zola. The police are certain that Nobles is a key player in the scheme and believe that, since he is an inveterate bumbler, their task of catching him in a self-incriminating act should be simple. Leonard, though, has laid the groundwork for necessary complications: the odd relationship between Nobles and Shaw, the focus upon her motion-picture career, and her tendency to infuse much of her conversation with lines from old films. In any event, LaBrava and the others realize, Nobles is neither orchestrator nor dupe, but rather accomplice and front man in a scam too complex for him to have concocted. Jean Shaw is the brains behind the alleged extortion, but rather than a product of her imagination, it is primarily a reworking of a plot from Obituary, a film in which she starred with Tyrone Power.
Leonard is full of surprises in LaBrava , not the least of which is his conclusion. Though Jean, it finally is clear, has double-crossed and tried to swindle Maurice, the two are going to get married. Maurice promises, “I’m gonna take good care of her,”...
(The entire section is 1,119 words.)