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Glitz by Elmore Leonard (Arbor House: $14.95; 256 pp.)

January 13, 1985|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a Times staff writer. and

Elmore Leonard's pen is meatier than the sword--as sudden and stark as a rabbit punch, a slug in the gut; a cop's collar or a canary's chipped C-flat in a cheap nightclub.

Leave the swords to Chandler and Hammett: beautifully forged, but now heirlooms. Leave parody to Spillane ("I cracked a deck of Luckies and jammed one into my mouth"), psychology to Simenon.

Leonard's stories are as contemporary as the crime rate, as quick and spare as a no-frills flight to Detroit.

"Glitz" is his 25th novel. People are queueing up to buy the first 24 in reissue. Recognition is belated but deserved. The man is a pro. In "Glitz," as in his other books, there is a street wit, a cutting edge of '80s authenticity, but little glamour. Criminals, whether petty con men or psychopaths, rarely are glamorous. Neither are cops. On both sides of the equation, they are just doing their jobs.

Leonard sets the scene--in this case, Puerto Rico, then Atlantic City, then P.R. again--and observes them, or so it seems. It is the mark of the author's craft that his characters do not seem to be created, "written." They simply are there, stalking, posturing, playing, loving, scheming, and we watch and listen and are fascinated. And appalled, yes, or approving, but always absorbed. They never let us off the hook.

Central to "Glitz" are Vincent Mora, a detective recovering in San Juan from a gunshot wound, and Teddy Magyk, putatively harmless, almost pleasant ("the kind of guy you can see riding a three-wheel bike selling ice cream"), who's obsessed with Mora as the man who sent him up seven years back for a sexual assault on an elderly woman.

Bonding the two is Iris Ruiz, whose ambition begins and ends with a mink coat and who is summed up in three sentences: "Iris, you're the best-looking girl I've ever seen in my life." "Thank you, but is pronounce Eer-es." "And also the dumbest."

Iris sashays off, inevitably, to work as a "hostess" in an Atlantic City casino, whence her fate, equally inevitably, is reported to Mora: "They pick her up?" "They found her--." "What'd she do, solicit a cop?" "She didn't do nothing, Vincent. She died."

The premise--Mora's determination to avenge the death of a worthless tart--is as shaky as a habitual offender's alibi, but character, dialogue and place connive to erode skepticism.

There is abrasive, pit-wise Jackie Garbo, casino manager, and Ricky the Zit, embittered bag man, and Moose Johnson, coked-up bodyguard, and Linda Moon, the thinking man's thrush--and there is Atlantic City itself, "an old seaside resort being done over in Las Vegas plastic" where "nobody smiles any more."

As always in an Leonard oeuvre, twists, warps and aberrations coexist with the mundane, bending it out of shape, leaving the reader gasping but game.

Typical is the observation of a dispassionate murderer as a woman goes over a balcony 18 stories into the night: "An eight-point-five. Very nice, but 'ey, she didn't keep her feet together."

Leonard did. He's a pro.

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