Philadelphia Inquirer once suggested that the Swedish
Academy should give the Nobel Prize for Literature to Elmore
Leonard. Now, it is debatable whether that esteemed body would give
such a prestigious award to a writer who has made his living first
in westerns and then in crime and mystery novels. But that might be
the best original idea any American newspaper ever had.
After an excruciating wait of two years, Elmore Leonard is back
with his 43rd book, UP IN HONEY'S ROOM. And the multitude of his
loyal fans will not be disappointed. The appearance of any Leonard
book is a cause for celebration and a quick trip to the
UP IN HONEY'S ROOM brings back the hero Leonard introduced in his
last book, THE HOT KID, Carl Webster of the U.S. Marshall Service.
Carl, of course, is the son of Virgil Webster, Spanish-American war
hero of CUBA LIBRE. Carl is famous for having shot and killed at
least a dozen wanted felons with his Colt .38, its front side filed
off. But he always gives fair warning before he shoots. Carl is a
Gary Cooper kind of hero.
This novel is set a decade after Carl was tracking down
Depression-era gangsters in THE HOT KID. Now, almost 40, Carl is on
the trail of two escaped German prisoners of war: an SS major, Otto
Penzler, and a tank captain from the Afrika Korps, Jurgen Schrenk.
The POWs have a five-month lead on Carl, but he knows they are in
Detroit because Jurgen, who Carl just happened to befriend in the
Oklahoma POW camp, spent time there with his family before the
This puts the novel on (Michigan native) Leonard's home turf. And
to call Leonard a master craftsman is almost to minimize his
extraordinary storytelling abilities. Nobody writing today moves a
story along as effortlessly and builds suspense as subtly as
Leonard. Reading a Leonard book is like overhearing fascinating
characters talking on the subway and wishing you could miss your
stop just to listen to what they have to say next.
Nobody does a better job of conveying information. Scenes start,
build and then stop, and we learn their conclusion through dialogue
with another character several pages later. Pieces of information
are economically parceled out like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle
that then fit together perfectly further on in the story. The
cumulative effect is to make the reader laugh with delight and keep
turning the pages.
Leonard has said that he starts his books with a character --- and
in this one that means Honey Deal. Leonard has written great female
characters before; think of Jackie Brown, who was played by Pam
Grier in the Quentin Tarantino movie based on the Leonard book. But
Honey Deal might be his greatest creation. Transplanted from East
Kentucky to Detroit, Honey is free-spirited, independent and
basically just wants to have fun in time of war. "Sieg Heil, y'all,
I'm Honey Deal," she announces upon breaking in uninvited on a
meeting of spies.
Carl, who has to fight to resist her charms since he's married,
compares her to Lauren Bacall, who at the time of this novel would
have just been hitting it big in To Have and Have Not. He
also says at one point, "She's the type, she's comfortable not
having any clothes on."
Jurgen, who is not married and on the run and hence not immune to
Honey's charms, gets one of the greatest Elmore Leonard lines of
all time regarding his feelings for Honey: "He would be in wonder
of her for as long as he lived."
Leonard has a way of writing the perfect sentence at the right time
that makes you have to go back and read it again and shake your
Both Carl and Honey get mixed up in the Motor City with a very
strange Nazi spy ring. The ring includes a butcher, briefly married
to Honey, mostly with the lights off, who bears an eerie
resemblance to Heinrich Himmler's. Indeed, Walter Schoen was born
in the same city, hospital, date and hour as the Nazi leader and is
totally obsessed with him. Then, there is the transvestite double
agent and Nazi killer with the Buster Brown haircut who is houseboy
to the leader of the ring, Vera Mezwa, "the most important German
agent in America." Most important, that is, until the Reich stops
the monthly paycheck. Then it is every spy for themselves.
Vera takes stories from the newspapers, rewrites them in invisible
ink and sends them back to Germany via Chile. At one point she
suggests that the Germans simply buy a subscription to Time. Vera
is not even sure who Mata Hari spied for, "but she knew she was
better looking than the Dutch woman --- huge thighs…"
But with the German Reich in its death throes and lawman Carl
closing in, the lines between good guys and bad guys can sometimes
get blurred and ideology is meaningless. Leonard creates people,
not stereotypes. And you can root here at points even for the
baddest of the bad.
Escaped prisoner Jurgen dreams of going west and becoming a cowboy
after the war, complete with the boots. He wants to make a living
as a bull rider on the rodeo circuit. His partner, Otto, improbably
finds a nice Jewish girl from Cleveland and decides to open a
mystery bookstore. And by what must be totally chance coincidence,
Otto Penzler just happens to be the real-life owner of the famous
Mysterious Press and Bookstore in New York City. Leonard probably
knows nothing about this, right?
If you believe that, then Elmore Leonard has a bridge in Detroit he
wants to sell you. The point is that Leonard has tremendous fun in
writing his books. UP IN HONEY'S ROOM is a great, fun story with
tremendous, colorful characters that will stay with you long after
the final page. We can only hope that we don't have to wait two
years until Honey returns --- and that somebody sends a copy of UP
IN HONEY'S ROOM to the Swedish Academy.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 24, 2011
Up in Honey's Room