cover image Pagan Babies

Pagan Babies

Elmore Leonard. Dell Publishing, $24.95 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-385-33392-4

The opening paragraph depicts a corner of hell on earth: a church in Rwanda after the recent (real-life) genocide, ""a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather.... "" That's a grim start for a Leonard book, and the rest of this 36th novel from the old master doesn't shy from its dark promise. The world depicted here is a treacherous place, infested with diseased souls. While some of the spiritually afflicted are villains, however, some are merely scoundrels. It's to the latter that Leonard lends hopeDmost notably to two appealing felons: ""Father"" Terry Dunn, who ministers to the Rwanda church's surviving flock although he is on the lam and only posing as a priest, and Debbie Dewey, just released after serving three years for driving over her (now ex) husband with a Ford Escort. When Terry guns down four men responsible for the massacre in the church and flees to hometown Detroit, he meets Debbie and the two fall in lust pronto. It takes only minutes for Terry to inform Debbie, who's trying to make it as a stand-up comic telling prison jokes, that he's a sham priest, and only days for him to clue her in on his new scheme: to bilk the soft-hearted for dollars supposedly for Rwandan orphans but really for Terry's pockets. Great idea, Debbie thinks, and why not get the money from her now rich and mob-connected ex, and maybe even from mob boss Tony Amilia himself? The narrative ricochets through the ensuing caper and its gallery of players as lifelike as they are unlikely. As readers watch an erstwhile hoodlum pal of Terry's, one Johnny Pajonny, link up with a dim-witted hitman known as ""Mutt,"" they'll know that they're standing at ground-zero Leonard, surrounded by some of the sweetest prose between covers this year and caught up in a crime thriller that takes admirable chancesDaesthetically and morally. Film rights sold to Universal and Danny DeVito's production company, Jersey Films. (Sept.)