Elmore Leonard – LaBrava (Book Review)

LaBrava cover

Elmore Leonard – LaBrava

Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava is a fun, fast-reading crime novel. Leonard has a strength for memorable characters, clear prose, and a plot that slips surprises into a comfortable formula. In fact, he revels in that formula, building the conflict around an aging actress who starred in films exactly like this.

Protagonist Joe LaBrava even serves as a stand-in for Leonard: He makes art that celebrates the characters on the streets, and he had a childhood crush on the “bad girl” actress. LaBrava is admittedly a more interesting character than the real-life author would have been: He quit the Secret Service due to his love of photography, but he can still throw a punch and is as quick-witted as, well, an Elmore Leonard hero.

This is a great book in many ways, but I found it to be a little uneven. The beginning is a deliciously seedy portrait of early 1980s Miami. Every new character is distinct and memorable, even if they’re just present for a few pages, and Joe’s banter with his friends is as fun as a Tarantino script. The end of the book features a very satisfying resolution to the crime plot. It seems predictable early on, but takes several clever twists that feel true to the characters.

In between that beginning and end, though, the book drags. The colorful characters and setting fade into the background once the plot gets going, but that plot takes a while to really become interesting. None of the time in the middle is really wasted, but it does seem like a poorly-planned structure. Two of those three sections are great, though, so it does still feel worth reading.

Some aspects of the female characters do bug me. (The rest of this paragraph has very minor spoilers.) For much of the book. LaBrava is sleeping with two women at the same time. And yes, that is a genre convention, even if he didn’t seem to have earned the second woman’s attention in the first place. But the thing that bothers me is that that second woman starts out as a very interesting character. After she sleeps with LaBrava, her character arc abruptly halts. They even discuss this in the book: She shows up a few times to complain that he’s ignoring her, but that she’ll still happily sleep with him any time. As if to rub salt in the wound, her only development after that is to change her hobbies to be more like his. The book couldn’t be more casually cruel to her if it tried, but there’s no sign that this is an intentional statement. LaBrava does play around with the cliché of the “bad girl”, but it can do nothing with its “good girl”.

Most of the book is good. The other characters tend to hit the right balance of lowlife and human, and the beginning and the end are both great in their own ways. The novel doesn’t come together in the right ways to realize its potential: That opening seems like the start of an amazing character study that never appears, while the ending has a wonderful plot that didn’t start up quickly enough. Even if I can’t get excited about the novel, though, almost everyone will enjoy it. This is a sporadic but memorable showcase of Leonard’s skills.

Grade: B-

 
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