It sure isn't boring being an Elmore Leonard fan. Some prolific suspense writers, including some good ones, win our loyalty by repeating themselves. They give us an agreeably familiar series hero, a setting we've come to know in fond detail, even the same basic plot over and over. But with Leonard there's no telling whether you're headed for South America or Michigan, for the Hollywood of last year's Get Shorty or the Palm Beach County, Fla., of Maximum Bob. More important, until a Leonard novel gets underway, it's anyone's guess who the heroes are. Sometimes they're the cops, but just as often they're the robbers or, as in Killshot (Leonard's best book), the innocent bystanders.
Kathy Diaz Baker, 27, a probation officer with the Florida Department of Corrections, is part cop, part innocent bystander in Leonard's latest crime triangle. Relieved to be divorced from her condescending Anglo husband, Kathy just wants to do her job. But that's not easy when she has to spend a lot of time fending off the advances of Judge ''Maximum Bob'' Gibbs, a redneck racist with dyed hair. And then, to make things nicely complicated, Kathy begins to suspect that one of her parolees a killer named Elvin Crowe is planning to murder the judge. All of which, together with her slow-burning attraction to a gentle police detective, qualifies Kathy as one of Leonard's unglamorous, appealingly life-size good guys.
Not that Leonard shortchanges the bad guys this time. Elvin Crowe, who certainly is planning to off Maximum Bob, may be nobody's hero, but he's a fascinating monster who nearly steals the show. The ultimate in twisted white trash, wearing $350 cowboy boots and electric blue polyester suits, Elvin parades his loathsomeness with an almost endearing lack of shame.
And somewhere in the middle, in plot terms and otherwise, is Maximum Bob himself, a pretty-bad guy with a dastardly if only marginally criminal scheme of his own. The goal: to free himself of wife Leanne, a former aquatic-show mermaid who (after an out-of-body experience) has become a deeply spiritual pain in the neck. The method: to scare alligator-phobic Leanne out of her wits by having a dead gator secretly deposited in their backyard.
Leonard amply exploits the farcical possibilities in this triangular maze of conspiracies beginning with the colossal failure of the judge's dirty trick. More surprisingly, in the book's later chapters he finds a way to shade black comedy into understated tragedy. Ultimately, Leonard even manages to invest the cartoonish figure of Leanne who believes herself to be possessed by the spirit of a black slave girl, a Butterfly McQueen soundalike with something like dignity.
No, Maximum Bob doesn't have the soothing rhythms and rounded corners of the best formula crime fiction. It bumps along at times, as Leonard strains often if not always successfully for fresh effects. But, though less polished and witty than Get Shorty and less firmly focused than Killshot, this is still very much Leonard in his ripe, exploring prime with the juiciest characters and sharpest backgrounds in the business. A-