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Onyx reviews: Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard

Only Elmore Leonard could conceive of a plot wherein the target of a hit man delivers the weapon to be used against him to the assassin. Only Leonard could team up a priest doing volunteer work in Rwanda with a female ex-con who has aspirations of becoming a stand-up comic.

Terry Dunn's mission to Rwanda may have had less to do with a religious calling to that war-torn African country than with an impending indictment for illegally transporting cigarettes across state lines. His congregants in Rwanda, including his alluring housekeeper, think that he is a good man, but not a terribly effective priest. He says Mass two or three times a year, hears confession and doles out the same penance, regardless of the sin.

Shortly after he arrived in Africa, Dunn watched, aghast but powerless, as rival Hutus slaughtered forty-seven of his Tutsi parishioners during Mass, part of an ethnic cleansing campaign that left nearly a million people dead. The bodies were left in the church and Dunn now takes confession in the rectory yard.

When a Hutu man confesses that the killings are about to start up again, Dunn exacts drastic penance and returns to Detroit for the first time in five years. Here, his path crosses with Debbie Dewey, who used to work for his brother, a personal injury lawyer.

Debbie, formerly a legal investigator who recently completed a three-year prison term for running over her ex-boyfriend Randy with a Ford Export in front of numerous witnesses, is trying to make a go of it as a stand-up comic. She uses her encounter with Randy and her prison experiences as inspiration for her comedy routine.

Randy, a smooth-talking swindler, now runs a restaurant with mob-ties, financed by the proceeds of a short-lived but profitable marriage to a rich socialite. Debbie is devoted to recovering the money Randy took from her, as well as getting some compensation from him for her three years behind bars. She finds an unlikely ally in Terry Dunn, and she soon suspects that there is more to the good Father—or perhaps less—than meets the eye.

The con starts out as a simple "slip-and-fall" scam, the kind of insurance fraud that Debbie knows well from her years investigating these incidents. In an Elmore Leonard novel, the only sure thing is that nothing is what it seems and nothing will turn out the way the characters intended.

Soon, the plot is complicated by the involvement of Tony Amilia, the ailing head of the local Mafia, whose organization is currently on trial. Amilia uses Randy's restaurant as a money laundering operation and a front for his prostitution ring. Debbie and Terry decide that crime lord has deeper pockets than Randy, so they shift their sights in an audacious plot that involves "Father" Dunn's charity, a relief organization for the benefit of Rwandan orphans, the "pagan babies" of the title.

Con begets con and the novel's plot begins a series of twists and turns that leave the outcome uncertain until the final pages. Along the way, the reader is treated to entertaining minor characters like Johnny Pajonny, Terry's former partner-in-crime, who thinks that Terry is holding money from their last run, and The Mutt, a novice assassin with the IQ of a can of soda.

Leonard says that the secret of his novels is that he takes out all the boring parts. Pagan Babies is a fine example of this philosophy. It is a spare, clever, fast-paced tale, driven primarily by the witty and realistic dialog for which he has become known.

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