Pagan Babies is the second Elmore Leonard I’ve read. I picked it up on Amazon after looking at reviews and somehow figuring that this was one of his more highly regarded novels (it really isn’t, but I was a foolish youth). Anyway, I bought it, read it and loved it. Pagan Babies tells the story of Terry Dunn, a Detroit-born hood turned preacher who is hanging out in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Unable to cope with the violence around him, he kills a bunch of genocidal Hutus and then goes back to Detroit where he becomes involved with a scheme to rip off money from an aging mobster.
I found that Pagan Babies doesn’t have the frequent gunfights and action of The Hot Kid, but it showed me two other elements that Leonard comes back to again and again: suspense and a bittersweet ending. Leonard does suspense like Hitchcock — showing you the hidden bomb and having it ticking away while the other characters go about their business. There’s a sequence where a dimwitted hitman is sent to kill Terry which bounces between Terry and the hitman’s perspective, that had me staying up late to see what would happen. That kind of basic suspense seems simple to pull off, but I can’t think of anyone who does it as well as Leonard did in Pagan Babies.
Pagan Babies also provides an example of Leonard’s bittersweet endings. Very rarely does everything work out for Leonard’s protagonists. Most of the time, after the events of the book, they’re right back at where they were in the beginning, grappling with the same problems. Showing character change is supposed to be a major part of any story, but Leonard’s characters don’t really do that. They try to change — but fate and circumstances make them fail. Terry Dunn ends up in the same position as Max Cherry does in Rum Punch: he doesn’t get the girl and he’s stuck in the same business as he was in the novel’s beginning. It’s a fairly sad arc but it makes sense for Leonard’s world. The Noir story is always going to end badly for the protagonist and while Leonard’s stories are a shade lighter than the darkness of Noir, they tend to lean towards the bleak. However, at least the protagonist manages to have something close to a good time during their escapades. In Leonard’s world — and in our own — maybe that’s the best we can hope for.