A character in Elmore Leonard’s 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room is wondering when he should draw a handgun, hidden in the cushions of a sofa, and shoot it out with this guy pointing a burp gun at him. His inner dialogue goes this way:
All right, when?
When you’re positive he’s gonna shoot.
You’re serious? This guy put on his best dress and makeup and brings along a machine gun and you aren’t sure he wants to kill you?
This scene comes very late in the novel, and the reader, by then, knows why the guy holding the burp gun is in a dress and why he’s pointing it at two men and a woman (the titular Honey) sitting cheek to jowl, so to speak, on a coach in her fourth-floor apartment (the titular room). And why those three are nude. And who that other woman is, the one standing off to the side with a Luger in her hand.
Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, produced 48 novels in his long career, many of them great. Up in Honey’s Room, his 45th, isn’t great. Leonard was in his early 80s when he wrote it, so maybe he was just tired.
Still, even so-so Leonard can be a lot of fun — for the reader and apparently for the author as well.
Too much fun?
At one point, two characters are discussing the western novels of Zane Grey. “I tried Zane Grey once,” says one. “I thought it was awfully old-timey the way he wrote.”
In response, the other says, “His books don’t sound like he had any fun writing them.”
That doesn’t seem to have been Leonard’s problem in Up in Honey’s Room. In fact, maybe it wasn’t that he was tired, but this book might not be up to his standards because he was having too much fun creating a very odd mix of characters and then just letting them have their way with him.
The story is set in Detroit in early 1945, and it features a cluster of extremely inefficient and inconsequential German spies and escaped prisoners of war as well as the federal agents tracking them.
And then there’s Honey, a 30-year-old bleach-blonde Lauren Bacall-lookalike who’s a well-read free spirit. And her ex-husband Walter Schoen, a Hitler-loving and financially successful butcher who is obsessed by the idea that he may be the unacknowledged twin of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and Gestapo and overseer of the Holocaust.
“It was German gas”
Very little happens in the first two-thirds of the book, and the biggest mystery is why Honey ever came to marry Walter, much less live a full year with him before walking out.
Honey believed she could have fun with Walter. She liked to argue, especially with people who were serious about weird ideas they swore were true. Like the ones [like Walter] who read Social Justice, written by the priest she’d heard on the radio, Father Charles Coughlin, with a voice like syrup, but talked about a conspiracy of Jews being international bankers or atheistic Communists, either way out to get us.
My theory is that Honey is such a live wire, filled with curiosity about the world and its people, she was fascinated at how dull Walter could be despite his many idiosyncrasies. Here’s a glimpse into her marriage that she gives her sister over the phone:
“He said American food, all it did was give him gas. I had to learn to cook German, big heavy dinners, sauerbraten with red cabbage, bratwurst. For the first time in my life I had to watch my weight. Walter didn’t gain at all. He still had gas, only now it was okay, it was German gas. He’d cut one, aiming his finger at me like it’s a gun? I’d have to pretend I was shot.”
“And fall down?”
“If I was near the sofa. Or stumble around holding where I was shot. The first time, I did it on my own, acting goofy? But then every time he cut one and I heard it, I had to pretend I was shot…Except he never laughed or even smiled. I’d see him aiming at me…”
The plot of Up in Honey’s Room — what there is of one — starts to kick in near page 200 when there’s a triple murder, and the pace picks up a bit to bring the novel to its climax in Honey’s apartment with her and the two guys sitting nude on the coach looking at the guy with the burp gun.
Despite the danger, as the three sit there together, naked thigh to naked thigh, Honey’s mind wanders.
This was great, get to sit between two naked boys, both of them with neat packages, nice slender bodies with scars all over them. Carl’s she thought from gunshots, Jürgen’s skin tight and shiny in places where he’d been burned. These guys were all-guy. Jürgen turned his head and smiled at her and she smiled back at him. Then she smiled at Carl and Carl said: “What?”
“You’re a Jewess?”
It’s a funny scene, and Leonard plays it for laughs. Just as he plays every scene in the book, such as one much earlier in which Otto, one of two escaped German POWs, begins to flirt with an attractive woman in the book section of the Hudson’s department store.
“Tell me your name.”
She said, “I’m Aviva Friedman.”
“Really?” Otto said. “You’re a Jewess?”
“And you’re a Kraut, a Nazi?”
They banter a bit, and then Aviva says:
“I knew you were German. I should say I knew you weren’t American and I guessed you were a Kraut.”
“I don’t care to be called that.”
Aviva said, “I don’t care to be called a Jewess. What are you Lutheran?”
“At one time, yes.”
“What do you call women who are Luther, Lutheranesses?”
Otto and Aviva, who end up later in Cleveland preparing to wed, are minor characters in Up in Honey’s Room, but Leonard obviously enjoyed bringing them to life just as much as he did breathing life into Honey and Walter.
I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the line about Lutheranesses.
Patrick T. Reardon