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From Wednesday, 11 March to Sunday, 15 March, I read Elmore Leonard's Bandits (NY: Arbor House Publishing Company, 1987; ISBN: 0-87795-841-6; 345 pps.).
cover to Bandits by Elmore Leonard

Bandits by Elmore Leonard is a semi-humorous crime thriller set in the latter half of the 1980s involving the then-current US foreign policy entanglements with the Nicaraguan contras and their opponents, the Sandinistas (in full, the Sandinista National Liberation Front; in Spanish, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN), and the scheme concocted by three unlikely partners -- Jack Delaney, an assistant at his brother-in-law's funeral home who served time for hotel burglary; Lucy Nichols, an ex-nun who spent nine years at a leper hospital in Nicaragua, whose father is an ex-oilman turned successful helicopter salesman to the oil industry; and Roy Hicks, an ex-cop turned bartender who provided Jack protection in prison -- to rob a contra colonel named Dagoberto ("Bertie") Godoy Diaz, who is in New Orleans with a testimonial letter from President Ronald Reagan (or, as some of us preferred to style him, "Ronnie Ray-Gun") to help him drum up donations to buy military equipment and materiel for the anti-Communist contras to retake the reins of the Nicaraguan government from the Sandinistas. Into this already busy scenario Leonard adds a cynical, déclassé CIA agent named Wally Scales; an even more down-at-the-heels IRA soldier-cum-recruiter named Jerry Boylan, who is interested in siphoning off some of the colonel's guns; a Cuban exile turned Nicaraguan associate of Bertie's, turned Miami-based drug smuggler, named Crispin; and a half-black Miskito Indian (probably a Miskito Sambu or Miskito Zambo: the racial term was immortalized in the late Victorian children's book The Story of Little Black Sambo) named Franklin de Dios, the muscle of Bertie and Crispin, who is treated by them, as the saying goes, like a rented mule, but who has reasons of his own to fight the Sandinistas.

Add to this already complex blend of conflicting motivations and murky politics a few more oddball Leonard characters, unexpected character interactions and character development, and, above all, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and you have the makings of a respectable entry in the "Dutch" Leonard oeuvre. (One quibble about that dialogue: every character here, whether from New Orleans or Nicaragua, says "suppose" when they mean to say "supposed.")

Bandits reads, at this remove, as a historical novel, filling in the memories of those readers who perhaps didn't pay quite as much attention to current events in the mid-1980s as they should have (although hopefully more than Jack and Roy do here...), as well as underscoring those memories of the time that did manage to stick with them. The proxy war that the US and the USSR fought in Nicaragua -- with the US backing the contras who fought to restore the deposed regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle (although it should be stressed that Somoza was assassinated in exile in Paraguay in 1980, and his heir apparent, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero -- derisively known as El Chigüín ["daddy's kid"] -- was, by the mid-1980s, not as attractive a figurehead to the contras as they might have wished for), and the USSR backing the ruling Sandinistas, either directly or through Cuba -- colored a good deal of political discourse in the US in the 1980s, and, in some circles, the 1990s, especially given the fact that some have pointed to the contras and their supporters as being a proximate cause of the epidemic of crack cocaine that afflicted California in the 1980s. Leonard does not mention the third Boland Amendment as being the reason that financial support for the contras went so far underground in the US from 1984 until October 1986; the actual activities of what would be dubbed the Iran-Contra Affair were winding down by the time Bandits was published, although news of the scandal didn't break until late in 1986. Iran-Contra would have a place at or near the top of the US news cycle from late 1986 until 1992, when Reagan's first Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, was indicted on two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice in relation to congressional investigations into the matter. (Weinberger was pardoned by the outgoing President George H.W. Bush -- "Bush 41" -- on December 24, 1992, before he could be tried on these charges.)

Readers disinclined to pick up a political / foreign policy info-dump masquerading as a thriller need not worry: Bandits only imparts as much background as absolutely necessary for the characters to act. Indeed, Bandits can be seen as a master class in how to deliver highly condensed exposition almost entirely through a series of dialogues; Bandits reads so effortlessly that it's often only when one pauses at chapter breaks -- to grab a refreshing beverage, perhaps -- that one is apt to realize just how many details Leonard has given the reader. (An ancillary pleasure for me, as a fan of the work of John le Carré, is the sub-basement view of the world of espionage, and its frequent collusion with criminals of varying stripes. The entirety of Bandits can be imagined as taking up just about a chapter, no more, of one of le Carré's more celebrated novels.)

Most of the Leonard hallmarks are present in Bandits: the dry, sometimes off-color, if not out-and-out profane, humor; the quirky, though naturalistic, dialogues that both develop the characters and advance the plot; the unexpected character interactions; the organic behavior stemming from said interactions; and the equally unexpected violence. (Violence in Leonard's books usually doesn't transpire how one might expect, and its scale, whether for good or ill, also frequently surprises.) If Bandits isn't as suspenseful as, say, Killshot, it's certainly a fine entry in the canon, one to be savored as a more serious offering (compare Graham Greene's serious novels such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, or The Quiet American with his self-labeled "entertainments" such as Stamboul Train, A Gun For Sale, or The Ministry of Fear), with a depth and maturity not popularly associated with Leonard's work.


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.



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