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.
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.