Pagan Babies: a Novel
Reviewed by Mike Shea, Fri., Dec. 15, 2000
Pagan Babies: A Novelby Elmore Leonard
Delacorte, 263 pp., $24.95
Over time, readers sometimes overlook favorite writers who are overly prolific, take them for granted because they've been stalwarts of the bestseller lists for years or even decades. There's no harm in missing their newest book because, heck, there's another one on the way next year. And it's likely that Elmore Leonard is a victim of such a syndrome -- that he's lost the attentions (if not necessarily the affections) of some of his fanatical readers as they turned their attentions to new generations of Leonard acolytes -- Robert Crais, Carl Hiassen, George Pelecanos, and such. But Pagan Babies is proof, if any is needed, that the master has earned each and every one of the countless accolades that have been showered on him over the years. He has not lost a step and might, in fact, be better than ever.
Like airline pilots whose dependability inspires the passengers' confidence -- you know where you're going and that they'll take you there -- Elmore Leonard can be counted on to be steady at the wheel and deliver you to your destination. That's the kind of trust he's earned from crime caper aficionados after 37 novels (give or take). And from this opening blast of a sentence ("The church had become a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years ..."), Pagan Babies is 100% pure Leonard.
This time out he takes us to Rwanda, where the horrible civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi continues to rage, seemingly with no end in sight. Moreover, it appears to be not so much a war as a genocide wherein Hutu slaughter defenseless Tutsi men, women, and children by the dozens. In a tiny Rwandan village in the midst of these atrocities, we find unconventional missionary Father Terry Dunn. The good father tends to the locals' spiritual needs in a hit-or-miss fashion. He follows an irregular schedule of Mass-saying and confession-hearing. His implacably cavalier attitude toward the Ten Commandments and the sacraments make it unlikely that he is on the Vatican's short list for promotion. His few parishioners can't help but notice his fondness for Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch and the comely housekeeper who appears to know Father Terry better than anyone else -- in every sense.
When Father Terry is summoned home to Detroit for his mother's funeral, puzzling inconsistencies and mysteries begin to emerge from his life's shadowy corners. Before he departs, there's the matter of Bernard, the Hutu man with the green shirt who confessed to the priest (or boasted, take your pick) that he and his friends massacred the 47 Tutsi parishioners whose bodies still, after five years, lay unattended-to in the village church. And upon arrival in Detroit, Terry's attorney brother Fran announces a need to clear up a cigarette-smuggling indictment that was handed down before young Terry Dunn donned the robes and headed off to Africa (surely our good priest is innocent, isn't he?).
Like so many things in life, and like everything in an Elmore Leonard caper, circumstances are not quite as they appear. The plot turns early and often with whiplash speed. The characters we meet change chameleonlike, and not even the color of their hats helps tell the good guys from the bad. The Terry Dunn who left Detroit is quite different from the Father Dunn tending his church flock in a Rwandan village.
Pagan Babies is a riot of shameless con artistry and silicon-smooth dialogue, a neo-classic of comic crime with a full slate of bumptious crooks and faithless accomplices. It's interesting to speculate how things would have turned out if Leonard had kept the story in Rwanda and written a wholly different kind of novel. The opening sequences assume a different tone and style than we're accustomed to from Leonard. But by any measure, Elmore Leonard is still here and still a pure joy to read.