MR. PARADISE by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow), 291 pages, $36.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
When Elmore Leonard's in full command of his peculiar prose style - those endless pages of dialogue in which people pretend to be tougher than they are inside a plot that gets lost in the incidental connections between the characters - reading him is like listening to a great jazz musician stretch out on material that doesn't really challenge him. Mr. Paradise features an old, dead criminal lawyer who liked really expensive hookers dressed up as University of Michigan cheerleaders, two really expensive hookers, a couple of blue-collar hit men and some Detroit cops trying to unravel what went down. It's like listening to Coltrane play My Favorite Things.
Mr. Paradise is Leonard's first Detroit novel in years, and his Detroit is starting to look like James Ellroy's Los Angeles, a historical setting that's not there any more. When one of the characters, born in 1966, claims to have seen Iggy with the Stooges, you think, "What, when she was seven?" There was a Stooges reunion last summer, but prior to that they hadn't played Detroit since 1973. That's the sort of slip that someone should have caught.
Leonard does what he does so well that he rarely ventures into the dangerous territory occupied by the best American crime writers. His characters tend toward a bug's-eye, street-level view of the world, but he avoids the darker subjects of American crime fiction, class and politics, where Cain, Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald and Ellroy excel.
There's nothing in Leonard to match the class consciousness of Mildred Pierce or The Big Sleep, the paranoid political melodrama of Red Harvest or L.A. Confidential, or the chilling awareness of secret lives and hates in The Chill.
Mr. Paradise is enjoyable, but anyone who's read five or six Leonard novels has taken this trip before. He hits the Harbourfront Reading Series Wednesday (February 18). See Readings