Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard (review)

As some of you probably know, I love a good crime novel (especially if it’s a classic one) but for some reason I haven’t read many by Elmore Leonard. I’m more familiar with the film adaptations of his work than the books themselves. Rum Punch, first published in 1992, was adapted for the screen in 1997 as Jackie Brown, directed by Quentin Tarantino. It’s probably my favourite Tarantino movie and as I haven’t watched it for a while, now seemed as good a time as any to read the source novel.

IMG_1840

Ordell Robbie – who first appeared in Leonard’s earlier novel, The Switch – thinks of himself as a major player in the illegal arms business. He’s back in touch with former associate and aging low-lifer, Louis Gara, recently released from prison for a series of botched bank robberies.

Ordell has accumulated a tidy stash of money through gunrunning. He keeps his cash in Freeport, Grand Bahama, moving the money into the US a batch at a time by way of a neat little scheme he’s devised. This is where Jackie comes in. (In the novel she’s Jackie Burke; Tarantino changed her surname to ‘Brown’ for the film.) Jackie, a forty-four-year-old stewardess with a career that’s going nowhere, is Ordell’s money runner – she smuggles his money into the mainland by hiding $50,000 in a manila envelope stashed in her flight bag.

Ordell’s keen for Jackie to carry a larger amount, maybe half a million dollars in a single trip, but she’s worried about getting caught and rightly so. We’re not long into the novel when a couple of Federal ATF agents stop Jackie and catch her with $50,000 and ‘a half inch or so of white powder’ in a cellophane bag. The Feds were clearly waiting for Jackie, someone must have talked.

The other main character in Rum Punch is Max Cherry, an experienced, slightly world-weary bail bondsman. Ordell puts up the money for Jackie’s bail, and when Max arrives to collect her from jail she makes quite an impression on him:

This was a good-looking woman. If he didn’t know her age he’d say she was somewhere in her mid-thirties. Nice figure in the uniform skirt, five five, one fifteen – he liked her type, the way she moved, scuffing the slides on the vinyl floor, the way she raised her hand to brush her hair from her face…Max said, ‘Ms Burke?’ and handed her his business card as he introduced himself. She nodded, glancing at the card. There were women who sobbed with relief. Some men too. There were women who came up and kissed him. This one nodded. (pg. 63, Orion Books)

The Feds want Ordell, so they cut Jackie a deal. If she helps them nail Ordell, they’ll drop any charges against her. Jackie’s already at the bottom of the heap when it comes to her job, reduced to working for some crappy airline for a measly salary and little in the way benefits. A criminal record would signal the end, so she agrees to help federal agent Nicolet and his partner catch Ordell. She’ll carry Ordell’s $500,000 into the mainland where the Feds will be waiting.

But Jackie wants out, an escape from her empty life as a stewardess, a life free from dependency on Ordell. Likewise, Max is tired of life as a bail bondsman. In this scene, he starts to question what he’s doing with his life and whether there’s a way out for him too:

The place smelled of mildew.

He sat in the living room in the dark, an expert at waiting, a nineteen-year veteran of it, waiting for people who failed to appear, missed court dates because they forgot or didn’t care, and took off. Nineteen years of losers, repeat offenders in and out of the system. Another one, that’s all Louis was, slipping back into the life.

Is this what you do?

He knew why he was here. Still, he began to wonder about it, thinking not so much of waiting other times in the nineteen years but aware of right now, the mildew smell, seeing himself sitting in the dark with a plastic tube that fired a beanbag full of buckshot.

Really? This is what you do?

Max pointed the stun gun at a window, pushed in the plunger and saw a plane of glass explode. (pg. 87)

So, Jackie and Max hatch a plan to double-cross Ordell and disappear with his money. It’ll mean deceiving the Feds too, but Jackie thinks she can pull it off. She’s the catalyst, the thinker, but Max has fallen for her, and he’s willing to take a chance.

I don’t want to reveal any more of the plot, but it’s a great one with plenty of twists and turns. Even if you haven’t read Rum Punch, you may be familiar with it from the film. There are a few differences, but Jackie Brown is pretty faithful to the core of the novel.

Rum Punch is very well written, and I hope some of the quotes illustrate just how good it is. Leonard’s prose is lean, but he has a great eye for detail and observation. As you might expect, the dialogue feels tight and authentic. Any unnecessary clutter and exposition are stripped away allowing the reader to focus on the conversations and essential action. Here’s a passage from a scene between Ordell and Jackie following her release on bail – we get a sense of Ordell’s inner thoughts as well as his conversation with Jackie:

The way Ordell heard what Jackie was saying: If she kept quiet and did time on his account, she wanted to be paid for it. He asked her was this a threat. She said that would be extortion. It might be, but wasn’t an answer to the question. Was she saying if he didn’t pay her she’d go talk to the police?

Wait a minute.

He said, ‘Baby, you don’t know any more what my business is than they do.’

She said, ‘Are you sure?’

‘You run some money you say is mine. What am I suppose to get convicted of?’ Asking what sounded like the key question…

She came back saying, ‘The illegal sale of firearms.’ Like that. ‘It’s true, isn’t it? You sell guns?’

Sounding innocent saying it that way, naïve, nice-looking airline stewardess sitting across the room on her white sofa. Except she had the two guns resting on cushions to either side of her, little guns to look at but nothing naïve about them. (pg. 88)

Leonard is sharp too when it comes to characterisation. Each of the main players has their own voice, their own distinctive way of moving. Even the minor characters come alive in a few sentences – Simone and Sheronda, for instance, two of the three very different women Ordell seems to have on the go. One of the things I like about this novel is the way Leonard encourages the reader to invest in his characters. It’s easy to empathise with Jackie and Max, but even screw-ups like Louis elicit some sympathy from the reader (this one, at least).

All in all, Rum Punch is a terrific crime novel. I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage I couldn’t bear to leave out as it captures a sense of the Florida setting, the way the place has changed over the years. It’s another great piece of writing, one that conveys the author’s eye for authenticity and detail. Louis is another one looking for a way out. As it happens, he’s been working for Max handing out business cards, but he’s itching to get back to something more lucrative:

Louis had lived here ten years ago when old retired people from New York sat on the hotel porches wearing hats, their noses painted white, and boat-lift Cubans worked their hustles down the street. Five years ago when it was beginning to change he had returned to rob a bank not ten blocks from here, up by Wolfie’s Deli. Now it was the hip place to be in South Florida. Guys with sunglasses in their hair posed skinny girls on the beach and photographed them. There was no place to park anymore on Ocean Drive. Louis had a couple more vodka tonics. He watched a dark-haired girl in leotards and heels coming along the sidewalk, a winner, and was about to put his hand out, ask if she wanted a drink, when he realized she was a guy wearing makeup and tits. That’s how trendy it was now. What was he doing here? He wasn’t a salesman who handed out bail-bond cards. If anyone asked him what he did he would have to say he robbed banks, even though the last one was almost five years ago. (pgs. 73-74)

Rum Punch is published in the UK by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books. Source: personal copy.

54 thoughts on “Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard (review)

  1. Brian Joseph

    I have been meaning to delve into some classic crime books for some time. Your commentary on this one has whetted my appetite.

    Elmore Leonard sounds very good. I also like Jackie Brown a lot.

    Reply
  2. fishmandeville

    A really persuasive review; I’ll be reading Rum Punch. Weirdly, Leonard was first recommended to me by an elderly and distinguished academic (specialism: Middle English) when I worked for Waterstone’s. He especially liked Cuba Libre. For me, it may be the best sort of modern American writing, I much prefer it to some of the more exalted post-war Great American Novel prose. Charles Portis also writes beautifully and not at all earnestly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Paul. I hope you enjoy Rum Punch as much as I did.

      That’s really interesting – I’ll take a look at Cuba Libre as it’s always good to have a recommendation or two. Cheers for the tip.

      Leonard’s prose style is perfect for this type of novel, and I like the way he allows much of the story to evolve through dialogue. I should take another look at Charles Portis as it’s been a while since I read True Grit.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I confess I’ve never read Leonard but I really should – I love Ed McBain, so I can cope with hard-boiled! :)

    Reply
  4. Annabel (gaskella)

    Lovely review – I love Elmore Leonard and must reading more. Have you read Maximum Bob? That’s one of my favourites. Watching Jackie Brown after reading this book though, I was impressed that Tarantino took a lot of the dialogue straight out of the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel. I haven’t read Maximum Bob, but I’m adding it to my wishlist right now! It’s good to have a personal recommendation so thank you for mentioning that one.

      I’m looking forward to watching Jackie Brown again, and it’ll be interesting to compare it with the book. The dialogue did sound familiar I must admit, and when the writing is this good there’s little point in messing about with it. I recall hearing an audio interview with Elmore Leonard a while back and even though Tarantino changed a few things about the characters Leonard sounded very happy with the film adaptation. Casting Pam Grier in the title role was a stroke of genius and Robert Forster’s great as Max Cherry.

      Reply
  5. Guy Savage

    I know a bail bondsman who says that Jackie Brown is an accurate portrayal of his profession. I haven’t read this one (yet) but should. Are you a Westlake fan by chance?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting. I’ve no way of knowing of course, but it did feel convincing. I haven’t read anything by Donald Westlake, but he sounds like a good bet for me. Are there any in particular you’d recommend, Guy?

      Reply
      1. realthog

        I haven’t read anything by Donald Westlake, but he sounds like a good bet for me. Are there any in particular you’d recommend, Guy?

        Well, I’m not Guy (I’m a guy, but . . .), but I love Westlake’s comic novels, including but far from limited to the Dortmunder series. It’s a while — far too long — since I’ve read any of his harder-boiled ones (or the ones he wrote as Richard Stark), so I recently bought a couple to give myself a chance the redress that situation.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Many thanks, John – your recommendations are always welcome! I hadn’t realised that Richard Stark was Westlake in another guise. It sounds like the comic ones are worth a look.

          Reply
          1. Max Cairnduff

            I read (and reviewed) Somebody Owes Me Money thanks to one of Guy’s reviews of that same book. It’s a really good place to start with Westlake, I think you’re really like it.

            Reply
  6. realthog

    I’m with you on Jackie Brown being Tarantino’s best movie! Because I like it so much, I keep meaning to read Rum Punch (and may even have it on the shelves somewhere); trouble is, while I’ve enjoyed several of the Leonard novels I’ve read, I’ve found a couple of others disappointing. Now I have your recommendation of this one, though, I have no excuse! Many thanks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Phew! That’s good to hear. Well, I loved Rum Punch and would have no hesitation in recommending it even to a die-hard Jackie Brown fan such as yourself. There are some differences between the two but that’s only to be expected. I’d like to hear more about the Leonard novels you’ve enjoyed and the disappointments too; you’ll be helping me to home in on the good ones!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        That’d take me a while and some research, because in my dotage I have a memory like a sieve for book titles. However, offhand I can recall like Get Shorty and Out of Sight a lot and being underimpressed by Kill Shot. I’ve read a couple of others, maybe more than that, but can’t recall their titles; at least one of those others fell into the same category as Kill Shot — adequate eye-fodder if stuck on a train with it, but by no means anything to get excited about.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s ones of the reasons I’ve started blogging as I’m hoping it’ll improve my recall of individual books! Get Shorty is the only other Leonard I’ve read but it was so long ago I can recall very little about it now. I’m interested in Out of Sight so I might take a look at that one. That’s great, John – I’ll avoid Kill Shot!

          Reply
  7. Scott W.

    I’m not much of a crime novel fan (a fault, my fault), but I loved the Tarantino film – especially that redemptive, touching relationship between Jackie and Max – and would be curious to read this to see what Tartantino did with the source material. Most of the other Leonard adaptations have left me cold, leaving me wondering if that’s partly the fault of the novels or mostly just due to directors who lacked imagination in working with them. I assume the latter.

    Reply
      1. realthog

        I’d agree with you if it weren’t for Pam Grier’s performance — it’s quite outstanding, so far as I’m concerned, and pulls the whole movie up with it.

        Reply
      2. JacquiWine Post author

        I liked Out of Sight, but Jackie Brown remains my favourite of the Leonard adaptations I’ve seen. I keep forgetting about those early westerns – I should take a look at the film adaptation of 3.10 to Yuma.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think that’s why I love the film so much. That relationship is there in the source novel, but casting Pam Grier as Jackie was an inspired move on Tarantino’s part. Grier looks very different to the description of Jackie Burke in the novel, but she’s terrific in the role; great on-screen chemistry between her and Robert Forster.

      I’d recommend the novel, and it’s an interesting companion piece to the film. Thinking about it now, I got a much better sense of Louis from the book. He’s a mess and a bit of a screw-up, but Leonard clearly feels some affection for him. Louis’s character is written in such a way that elicits some sympathy from the reader, and I didn’t feel quite the same way about him when I saw the film. Maybe de Niro wasn’t right for that role, or perhaps the novel just offers more scope for fleshing out one or two characters like Louis, but that’s one thing I’d highlight.

      Jackie Brown is my favourite of the Leonard adaptations, for sure. I liked Out of Sight although I find Steven Soderburgh’s films a bit hit or miss. They always look very stylish, but I wonder whether he puts too much focus on the aesthetics to the possible detriment of other aspects…

      Not much of a crime novel fan? A different type of crime, but what about all those Camilleris you read while travelling through Italy. And Sciascia, too? ;)

      Reply
      1. realthog

        although I find Steven Soderburgh’s films a bit hit or miss. They always look very stylish, but I wonder whether he puts too much focus on the aesthetics to the possible detriment of other aspects

        I’d go along with you on that.

        Reply
      2. Scott W.

        I like those crime novels where there’s a parallel something going on next to the plot. Camilleri, for example, creates a kind of encyclopedia of all things Sicilian in his writing, which is what most attracts me to him (there’s even a cookbook published in Italy based on what Montalbano eats). Sciascia’s novels have a political force behind them that can be searing in its connection to the events unfolding in Italy at the time he wrote them. So sure, not much of a crime novel fan, but perhaps a fan nonetheless.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a good point about Camilleri; his novels do paint a very vivid picture of the different aspects of Sicilian life. I love all those references to food and can well imagine the Montalbano cookbook you mention. Last year an Italian restaurant in London put on a series of Montalbano-themed lunches each one featuring a menu linked to a particular novel in the series. They sounded wonderful and I would have loved to go but sadly it wasn’t to be…

          As you say, Sciascia’s writing concerns itself with the politics and corruption of the day. Equal Danger (which I read last year) was very strong on that front. It starts out in seemingly routine crime territory and then morphs into something more interesting as the political connections start to become apparent. I have another couple of Sciascias so I should try to read another this year.

          Reply
        2. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I forgot to add…have you read any of Marco Malvaldi’s books? His Game for Five (the first in a series) is a little reminiscent of the Inspector Montalbano novels. It’s set in Italy, and while it doesn’t convey quite the same sense of place as the Montalbanos, it has a similar blend of humour and engaging characters alongside the darkness of the crime. The other Malvaldi I’ve read is somewhat different in style as it’s set at the end of the 19th century. This one’s called The Art of Killing Well: an absolutely delightful novella with a mystery at its heart, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

          Reply
      1. evastalker

        I feel the same about needing a fix like this. Sometimes only a great crime novel will do. I’ve never read Leonard. Boyfriend owns a few plus a big anthology of his cowboy stories! I keep browsing Leonard’s novels, loving the scenes I read, but never quite getting round to picking them up properly. You make Rum Punch sound amazing. Another one for my wishlist. Along with the Garnier and MacDonald you recommended!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Absolutely! Sometimes it’s all about a change of style and pace: much as I love Pinot Noir I wouldn’t want to drink it every day and the same goes for books too. I keep forgetting about those westerns Leonard wrote in the early days.

          I think you’d enjoy Rum Punch, and Garnier has something of the Manchette about him. Macdonald is great too if you’re ever in the mood for some hardboiled.

          Reply
          1. evastalker

            Thanks Jacqui! Think you’re spot on about a change in style & pace.

            Think I’ll tackle the three Manchettes I have to begin with and move onto the others you recommend. And I really should pick up my boyfriend’s collection of Chandler novels (I am dismayed to say I have never read him!).

            Reply
  8. 1streading

    Despite being a fan of detective fiction I’ve never read any Leonard – must put that right! (Scott’s comment above also reminded me I have a Camilleri waiting to be read! Have you read any Manuel Vasquez Montalban, where Montalbano’s name comes from?)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I haven’t read many! I must try other Leonards as Rum Punch was a terrific slice of classic crime. No, I haven’t read anything by Montalban and the link with Camilleri had passed me by. Should I be looking at Montalban, then? (I still have the Inspector Barlach Mysteries to look forward to!)

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve never managed to get into Leonard. I tried a historical novel by him set in the 19th Century but it didn’t fly for me. This sounds much more fun though, perhaps a better place to start with.

    Love that cover by the way, it’s very nicely done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought this was great, Max. The cover’s neat, isn’t it. Perhaps you should give him another try at some stage, one of the crime novels? (I’m tempted to ask why the 19th-century historical novel – I wouldn’t have considered it your thing!)

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        One of the benefits of blogging is I have a better sense now of my thing. It was about some war the US had with Mexico or Cuba in the late 19th century and a crime taking place against the backdrop of it, which sounded interesting but it just never grabbed me.

        Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s