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Book review: “Bandits” by Elmore Leonard

Finally, Tom Cullen comes out and asks Lucy Nichols, “Why would a good-looking girl like you…?”

If the 1987 novel Bandits were your run-of-the-mill crime novel, Lucy might be (a) a stripper, (b) a garbage worker, (c) a detective or (d) a whore with a heart of gold.

Since, however, this is an Elmore Leonard crime novel, Lucy is an ex-nun, fresh out of her Sisters of Saint Francis habit and into pretty elegant clothing.

Jack saw a slim young woman with dark hair brushed behind her ear in profile.  He took off his sunglasses.  Saw she was wearing a beige, double-breasted jacket, high-styled, made of linen or fine cotton, moving down a line of skid-row derelicts, touching them.

“Looking good”

Jack is Jack Delaney, a former hotel burglar and a former inmate at a Louisiana prison for being a hotel burglar.  Now, he’s working for his mortician brother-in-law, helping with all the jobs that need to be done around the Mullen funeral home except for the embalming part. 

He’s here at the Holy Family Mission in the poorer part of New Orleans to pick up Lucy.  They’re going to drive up to a leper hospital in Carville to pick up a dead body.  He doesn’t yet know she’s an ex-nun.

Her face startled him.  The slender, delicate nose, dark hair brushed back though it lay on her forehead, deep blue eyes looking up at him.  She was small up close and now that surprised him; only about five three, he decided, without heels.

The homeless guys outside the soup kitchen jokingly tell her not to get into Jack’s hearse. 

That’s a one-way ride, Sister.  Hey, Sister, you looking good.  She smiled at them, put a hand on her hip, and let her shoulders go slack, like a fashion model.  “Not bad, uh?  You like it?”  She stopped to look over the hearse, then at Jack, and said, “You know what?  I’ve always wanted to drive one of those.”

She blew the horn pulling away and the bums sunning themselves on Camp Street waved.

Crimes on top of crimes

Yep, this is not your typical crime novel.

The crime in Bandits is, actually, several crimes.  One, the murder of an Irish spy in a bathroom, is the sort that often happens in an Elmore Leonard novel. The others are a little more unusual, such as a mass murder of patients and medical staff at the leper hospital in Nicaragua where Sister Lucy worked when she was still a sister. 

Now, the guy behind these and many other killings — Colonel Dagoberto Godoy Diaz of the United States-backed contra rebels, trying to overthrow the Sandinista government — is in the Louisiana to raise money from rich Americans, such as Lucy’s father, to buy guns and other military stuff.  (It’s clear that Leonard sees the bankrolling of the contras as a crime although he’s also aware that the Sandinistas have their own moral blind spots.)

Yet another crime involves the Colonel’s plan to take the $2 million that he’s raised for the contras and, instead, run to Florida with his drug dealer friend to live the high life.

Jack learns a lot about the Colonel and his errand to America on the drive to and from Carville.  He also learns that Lucy isn’t Sister Lucy anymore, and that she’s trying to save the life of a young woman who used to be the Colonel’s mistress but is hiding from him because he thinks she tried to give him leprosy and now wants to kill her.

Dancing around the idea

That’s a lot of plot, and it doesn’t even include a subplot of whether the 65-year-old Cullen, newly released from prison, will be able to find someone to have sex with — and whether his heart will survive said sex.  Or Roy Hicks, the shady ex-cop whose eyes are “dead dark stones.”  Or several other lesser story threads.

One, maybe not so lesser, thread is whether Jack and Lucy will get it on.  She’s officially out of the convent, and he’s certainly attracted.  And, throughout the novel, they dance around the idea.

For the most part, though, their energies and those of Roy and Cullen are taken up with trying to figure out how the Colonel is going to flee with the money and how to steal it from him before he can get away. 

Lucy wants to use it to rebuild the leper hospital in Nicaragua. And the guys figure, What the hell? — and also figure to get some for themselves.

“Ran with the swingers”

Much more interesting that all those convoluted plotlines, however, are the conversations among the ragtag team members.  Such as why a rich and pretty girl like Lucy…

The answer involves lessons about St. Francis of Assisi and the power of God and faith.  As Lucy tells the boys:

“You know that before he acquired that gentle Saint Francis image, with the birds flocking around him, he was from a fairly wealthy family and ran with the swingers.  But when he gave it up he went all the way.”

Francis, she say, stripped off all his clothes in the town square and gave them to beggars. 

“Everyone thought he was crazy; they called him pazzo, madman, and threw rocks at him.  But he got their attention.  Maybe he was in a state of metaphysical delirium, divine intoxication, I don’t think it matters.

“He preached unconditional love, love of God through love of man, love without limits, without the language of theology, and he touched people…He kissed the sores on a leper’s face.”

Yep, Bandits definitely isn’t your cookie-cutter crime novel.

“To find myself”

That’s a long prologue into an explanation of how a good-looking girl like Lucy got to be a nun. Cullen asks her if St. Francis or his story touched Lucy and sent her to the convent, to which she replies:

“I got out of myself, the role I was playing as the little rich girl, to find myself.  It comes with being touched and then touching others….The first step in finding yourself is not to be hung up on things.  And when I was nineteen it all seemed very simple.”

Now, though, she’s burnt out.  “I finished one life when I became a Sister of Saint Francis and I finished that one when I left Nicaragua.”

This conversation of Lucy with Jack and Cullen takes up five pages of Bandits, and I’m not sure how many crime novelists could get away with five paragraphs, much less five pages, of talk about St. Francis and divine intoxication and religious vocations and kissing the sores of a leper.

But that’s not all.

“Just like you”

About a hundred pages later, St. Francis shows up again in the talk between those plotting to take the Colonel’s money before he does it himself.

Jack and Lucy are having a heartfelt conversation in which she tells him, “I’ll never forget you, Jack.  You remind me so much of him…”

Jack knows who “him” is, “just looking at her face, her smile, and feeling the goosebumps up the back of his neck.”  And Lucy says:

“Before he took all his clothes of and they called him pazzo and threw rocks ag him.  That Francis of Assisi.  I’ll bet he was just like you.”

That’s pretty extraordinary — that the main character in a crime novel, a smart-mouth, quick-thinking, amiable ex-con, is compared to St. Francis. The funny thing, though, is that this isn’t the only time that Elmore Leonard did it.

“Haunted look”

Thirteen years later, he wrote Pagan Babies, in which he tells the story of Terry Dunn, a priest who isn’t a priest.  Except he kinda is.

What happened is that Terry Dunn comes from Detroit to a small village in Rwanda to help his aged missionary uncle out and, when his uncle dies, becomes the village priest sort of by default.  He’s a Catholic boy whose mother had always wanted him to get ordained.  He’d been an altar boy, and, like generations of Catholic school kids, he’d kicked in small change to the jar labeled “For Pagan Babies,” the collection for mission work in foreign lands.

Terry isn’t the sort of turn-the-other-cheek guy as four village toughs find out and as several low-lifes back in Detroit find out when he returns home to raise money for Rwandan orphans.  In the midst of a 10-day visit, Terry gets involves with a mob boss, a mob lieutenant, a con man, a hick hit-man and assorted other odd characters and starts a romance with Debbie, an ex-con stand-up comic.

At one point, Debbie tells Terry he looks maybe saintly, or maybe not.

“You have that sort of haunted look, like Saint Francis.  Haunted or maybe shifty.”

Pretty extraordinary.

Patrick T. Reardon


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