by Elmore Leonard
259 pages, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Review by Paul Fenton
“If you want we can go over to First Bank, I’ll tell them I have an account, so you won’t have any trouble depositing the check.”
“What I think I’ll do,” Foley said, “is deposit half of it and take the rest in cash. I don’t walk out of a bank with at least five grand, I feel like a failure.”
I don’t have a clever or apt observation to lead into, I just really like that dialogue, and one thing you can always count on Elmore Leonard for is excellent dialogue. Of course, I’m a dedicated Elmore Leonard fan and would read just about anything he put out, except for his 10 Rules for Writing. Don’t ask me why – after all, I swallowed Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ in one gulp – but I think it might be due to Leonard’s style. He is the king of cool dialogue and the creator of characters you so want to be like, even the bad guys, characters who cut their way through storylines so effortlessly you don’t even realise you’re approaching a key scene or a climax until the first cap has been popped. What I love about Leonard, I don’t imagine it’s the kind of thing which can be taught. Worse still would be if it could be taught – after reading an Elmore Leonard novel I have enough trouble as it is trying to shield my own characters from his influence without having an instruction guide at hand.
Elmore Leonard’s novels are defined by their characters, and ‘Road Dogs’ is populated by not one, not two, but three characters plucked from earlier novels. It’s not so much a crossover novel as an intra-novel reunion for the loyal reader, sporting a dream-team cast of characters:
From ‘Out of Sight’, the Sweetheart Bank-Robber – who looks and sounds exactly like George Clooney if you happened to see the movie either before or after reading the book – Jack Foley.
From ‘LaBrava’ (probably my all-time favourite Elmore), the diminutive Latino menace, Cundo Rey. Yes, we all thought he was probably dead after being shot three times in the chest at the end of LaBrava, but no, he just fell into a wee bit of a coma before eventually hooking up with Foley in prison. I admit I had my breath half-held for a good part of the story, waiting to see if Joe LaBrava himself would put in an appearance.
Between resurrection and serving yard-time with Foley, Cundo managed to woo the opportunistic hottie Dawn Navarro, the sexy psychic from ‘Riding the Rap’, who has been waiting eight years for Cundo to get out of prison in a state of unlikely celibacy.
‘Road Dogs’ is the term used to describe Foley’s and Condo’s relationship in prison – a pair of cons who walked the yard together, looking out for each other and passing the time. Cundo uses this correctional bond as the reason for paying his own expensive (hot female) lawyer about thirty grand to re-try Foley’s case in a proper lawyerly fashion (his court-appointed attorney was useless and the magistrate was the infamous Maximum Bob, which all added up to a thirty-year sentence for Foley). Foley gets out with time already served, and Cundo insists he stay at one of his two Miami mansions until Cundo’s own release a week later. So begins the trademark “I’m going to pull a scam and I’ll let you know what it is just as soon as I figure it out myself” plot development so recognisable in Elmore’s stories. Cundo has a scam. Dawn has a scam. Jack maybe has a scam, or a scam to get out of scamming. Half a dozen other scammers lurk in the background waiting to pounce.
Do I sound like I didn’t enjoy it? I did. I enjoy all Elmore’s novels – at their very least every one of them is a lesson in dialogue. Would I recommend Road Dogs to an Elmore newbie? Maybe, maybe not; but I’m leaning towards the latter.
It’s hard for me to be completely objective about Road Dogs as a stand-alone novel because I’m so familiar with its ancestry – there were even references in there to Maximum Bob, the first Elmore book I ever read. If I had to think like someone new to Elmore, I’d probably complain about a lack of action – it’s a slow-boiler, but that’s often the way Elmore cooks them. As a fan, if I were forced to be critical, I’d say the story was a touch too easy, well inside Elmore’s comfort zone, like he was just enjoying getting caught up with some old friends. Having all those characters in the same story did make it that bit more surreal, like kids having an argument about who would win a fight between Superman and Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, and then seeing them all suddenly thrown together in the same comic book all embarrassed and shy.
Elmore snaps out of his feel-good trance towards the end, possibly a hundred pages or so too late, but that’s still good enough for Leonard’s peerless cool to carry the story and its characters through.
Good enough for me, anyway.
If you haven’t read Elmore before, go and read LaBrava, Out of Sight, Riding the Rap … perhaps even Pronto and Maximum Bob too. Familiarise yourself. Develop an appreciation, because without it, Road Dogs might not be as much fun as it could be.