By People Staff
July 11, 1988 12:00 PM

by Elmore Leonard

The best writers of crime stories—Chandler or Hammett then; Francis, Higgins or Leonard now—know two crucial things about human behavior. No act is so cruel or despicable that a man or woman can’t be found to perform it. And a lot of these acts, including the cruel or despicable, can often—if looked at in the right kind of black light with a sense of paradox and human weakness—be turned into something funny. This novel’s opening is almost unfairly involving. A high-level drug pusher has phoned for the Detroit cops because he just got a call telling him that there’s a bomb planted in the easy chair he’s sitting in; if he gets up, it will go off. That allows Leonard, author of such previous best-sellers as Glitz and Bandits, to introduce his hero, police bomb-squad sergeant Chris Mankowski. Leonard involves Mankowski—and his readers—with such characters as Greta Wyatt, a struggling actress; Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, former ’60s radicals who have a history of blowing things up; Donnell Lewis, a former Black Panther turned manservant, and Woodrow Ricks, a multimillionaire concert promoter who is addicted to alcohol, drugs, Leave It to Beaver and a variety of breakfast cereals. The plot eventually turns to romance, between Mankowski and Wyatt, and extortion involving just about everybody. Ricks is a tough character to accept. He and his brother inherited vast sums of money, but how he keeps it—Ricks being only marginally coherent—is never clear. Nor is it convincing that Donnell has taken almost total control of Ricks’s life. Leonard finesses the implausibilities, mostly by shifting points of view. The murderously embittered Robin sits in a marina bar-restaurant “hearing faint voices, a woman’s laughter, thinking, making judgments. Deciding that boat lovers were essentially smug, boring people.” The shallow, unprincipled Skip thinks, “Never use logic on an emotional woman. Or one in any state, for that matter,” Donnell, trying to get Woody Ricks to change his will, is going through the alphabet to come up with a new beneficiary; ” ‘We thinking of Ds, Mr. Woody. Come on, let’s think of somebody.’ Donnell waited. If the man was any dumber you’d have to water him twice a week.” Mankowski goes to see Lethal Weapon and “watched how Mel Gibson took care of the bad guys; Chris thinking, So that’s what you do, you shoot ’em. Mel Gibson played a burnout and supposedly didn’t care if he got killed or not, which was harder for Chris to believe than how good Mel was with his 15-shot Beretta.” The changes in tone, frame of reference and language are subtle, yet Leonard gives individuality to his characters. That means, among other admirable things, that Leonard makes this a crime story in which you find out more than just who is getting exploded all over the place at any given moment. You are provided with good, satisfying reasons for deciding whom you want blown up in the next chapter, too. (Arbor House, $18.95)