Like a great many people I have been a long time fan of Elmore Leonard. Somewhere along the line someone lent me a paperback and I was hooked. Soon I had read through his entire career including the westerns. This was before Get Shorty and other films had hit the big time (although Leonard has had a connection with Hollywood for a long time). Recently, I haven’t been as diligent about reading the latest Leonard, but when I saw that his new novel was set in his old haunt Detroit, I figured it was a good time to get reacquainted.
Mr. Paradise is a typical Leonard novel in many ways. It is basically a crime novel, albeit with a sort of love story thrown in. The title comes from Anthony Paradiso, a.k.a Mr. Paradise, a elderly Detroit lawyer with a kinky penchant for cheerleaders (a sleazy lawyer? Shocking!). His assistant in matters sexual is high class call girl Chloe. Chloe has given up on her lucrative escort career to take the easy money that Mr. Paradise provides. Not content with just Chloe, however, Mr. Paradiso wants two cheerleaders to romp around topless in short skirts while he watches old Michigan games. To effect this scenario Chloe talks her roommate, lingerie model Kelly, into donning the maize and blue and picking up the pom-poms (although she draws the line at topless and insists on a tight sweater instead). This turns out to be an ill fated night, however, as Chloe and Mr. Paradiso fall victim to a hit job engineered by a disgruntled employee. While Kelly avoids being killed, she is pulled into the complicated cast of characters behind the hit.
Leonard has long been known for his unique characters and dialog, and Mr. Paradise continues in this tradition. Beside Chloe and Kelly there is Montez Taylor, Mr. Paradiso’s gofer, whose grand scheme and poor planning starts the whole plot in motion; Art Krupa and Carl Fontana, the white collar ex-cons who pull the trigger; Lloyd, Mr. Paradiso’s houseman, who turns out to be smarter than he looks; and Avern Cohn, the lawyer behind the “work” of Art and Carl. The central character is a Detroit homicide investigator named Frank Delsa. Delsa’s job is to clean up the messes that Detroit throws up on a regular basis. He sifts through the clues, the bullshit, and the violence to catch the bad guys; the seemingly never ending stream of often stupid but certainly dangerous criminals. Since his wife’s death the job has become the central element in Delsa’s life. It is the one thing he knows how to do. Kelly, however, is something he is not used to dealing with; interacting with a seriously attractive model and suspect/witness isn’t usually part of the job.
All these characters, and a few more, become entwined in the plot as the story unfolds. They have very little in common and yet they are all connected to the death of Chloe and Mr. Paradiso. In an interesting twist, toward the end of the novel they all return to the scene of the crime to work things out; the denouement happens in the dead man’s kitchen. The plot is not really the point of this novel, however, instead it is the characters that sustain the book. The plot is really just a way for us to follow these people around and get a feel for their lives, their thoughts, their mannerisms. They aren’t really character studies so much as character sketches. Leonard creates memorable and quirky people that, while not exactly believable, are somehow real. You think to your self: people like this don’t really exist right? right? Maybe they don’t exist in reality but if they did this is exactly how they would talk and act.
While acknowledging the author’s noted skill with dialog and character, I still feel the whole is not the sum of it’s parts. Mr. Paradise is a brisk and entertaining read but it leaves you a little flat. Perhaps the expectations are too high, but I wanted a little more oomph. The love interest between Delsa and Kelly is implausible and rather predictable. The plot moves along but never really catches you off guard. Delsa is a bit weak for a main character; rather superficial and bland. He really never makes a mistake, he gets the supermodel girl, and tricks all the bad guys. I have no problem with the good guys being smarter than the bad guys but a little emotional depth or weakness might have made him easier to relate to; or at least have lent some mystery.
Mr. Paradise is quality entertainment by most standards but it doesn’t rise to the level of Leonard’s past efforts. This is a book you might read if you get the chance – or if you are a big fan of Leonard – but it isn’t a book you will tell all your friends about.