Onyx reviews: Pagan Babies by
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
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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