Books and Movies Reviews

Pagan Babies

Father Terry Dunn thought he’d seen everything on the mean streets of Detroit, but that was before he went on a little retreat to Rwanda to evade a tax-fraud indictment. Now the whiskey-drinking, Nine Inch Nails T-shirt-wearing padre is back trying to hustle up a score to help the little orphans of Rwanda. But the fund-raising gets complicated when a former tattletale cohort pops up on Terry’s tail. And then there’s the lovely Debbie Dewey. A freshly sprung ex-con turned stand-up comic, Debbie needs some fast cash, too, to settle an old score. Now they’re in together for a bigger payoff than either could finagle alone. After all, it makes sense . . . unless Father Terry is working a con of his own.

After 30-odd novels, one might think that Elmore Leonard has nothing left to prove. But Pagan Babies, a novel filled with his signatures (tight plotting, scathing wit, and that grittily realistic dialogue), shows once again why he sets the standard against which other crime novels are measured. In fact, Leonard has raised the bar. How many authors would dare use the Rwandan genocide as backdrop for a story that moves gaily between romantic comedy and a massive, labyrinthine con? More to the point, how many of them would pull it off? Father Terry Dunn doesn’t have qualms about substituting punishment for penance. If that means killing four Hutu murderers who slaughtered his Tutsi congregation, so be it. Being an instrument of divine wrath has certain disadvantages, however, so Dunn breaks camp and heads for Detroit, where he’s welcomed by family, a five-year-old federal indictment for tax fraud, and a fast-talking fireball named Debbie Dewey. Fresh from a stint in prison for assaulting her former fiance, Randy, with a Ford Escort, Debbie is out for revenge: “I still can’t believe I fell for it. He tells me he’s retired from Merrill Lynch, one of their top traders, and I believed him. Did I check? No, not till it was too late. But you know what did me in, besides the hair and the tan? Greed. He said if I had a savings account that wasn’t doing much and would like to put it to work… He shows me his phony portfolio, stock worth millions, and like a dummy I said, ‘Well, I’ve got fifty grand not doing too much.’ I signed it over and that’s the last I saw of my money.” It’s only a matter of time before Debbie’s desire for cold, hard cash and Dunn’s fundraising for Rwandan orphans join forces in a carefully plotted financial assault on Randy’s benefactor, Tony Amilia, who just happens to be the last of the old-school Detroit Mafia. Throw in a couple of hit men to whom loyalty is a foreign word, and you’ve got vintage Leonard: a fast-paced, roller-coaster ride of a novel where deceiver and deceived are gloriously shifty signifiers. –Kelly Flynn

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