Harper, 2009 (orig. Penguin 1985)
“A while ago somewhere
I don’t know when
I was watching a movie with a friend.
I fell in love with the actress.
She was playing a part that I could understand.”
-Neil Young, “A Man Needs a Maid”
It took a chapter or two, after we’re finally introduced to Jean Shaw and what she means to secret service agent come photographer Joe LaBrava, that Neil Young’s song “A Man Needs a Maid” came to mind. I’m sure we all have that actress, or actor, who we’ve seen and who in our youth we maybe fell a little bit in love with. There might have come a point when that actress and the parts she plays have become nigh inseparable in our hearts and minds. Of course, given today’s fascination with celebrity and the constant vulture like circling of paparazzi the illusion that films provided is somewhat lost. The mystery and magic of actors and actresses is shattered by the flash of the camera and the thunder of gossip across television screens and computer monitors. A belief that is at least somewhat thematically related to LaBrava which, while being a crime thriller, is as much about the reality of of modern times shattering the illusions of the past as it about crime.
As a historical side note Labrava, published in 1983, was written just 4 years after the area was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places (1979) and only 3 years after the Miami race riots and after some 25 years of population increases resulting from Castro’s takeover in Cuba in 1959 . To say it was an area in both deep economic and demographic flux is perhaps putting it mildly but I think it is worth noting. It is perhaps interesting to note as well that two years later, in 1985, Miami Vice would take home four Emmies and would remain an example and monument to eighties New Wave culture for years to come. The bright colors of Miami Vice stand in stark contrasted to faded glories described in Labrava.
The above is important since Joe LaBrava lives in a hotel in Miami Beach owned by a former bookie named Maurice. The vocal and somewhat cantankerous Maurice, like his hotel, is a product of “better” time; the reader’s link to Miami Beach’s more glamorous past. Like Jean Shaw, the tired movie star of LaBrava’s adolescent dreams, Maurice links into idea of romanticizing the past. It is a theme directly contrasted by LaBrava’s profession of photographer, as a man whose bread and butter has become immortalizing the present and who excels at capturing people in their truest state. Indeed, we are even introduced a painter whose is attempting to painted the decaying architectural wonders of Miami Beach’s architecture but who, after encountering LaBrava and his work, suddenly starts painting people. Leonard pulls off the connection more subtly then I describe there, but it remains that Leonard seems to be drawing a clear link to the importance of the here and now and the people rather then the places that they live in.
Indeed LaBrava is consistently drawn as a keen observer of people and situations. Formerly an IRS Agent he is keen observer of people and behavior. Skills he later honed as a Secret Service Agent where he gained the ability to read a room and observe without being observed. Yet, his infatuation with Jean Shaw and the roles she played in the films he loved end up blinding him to the present. His link to the past effectively clouds his judgment and compromises his ability to observe and process the details around him. It is elegantly done and, while the reader eventually sees what’s happening, never manages to feel contrived.
His keen observation skills and love of Jean Shaws old movies aside LaBrava remains an surprisingly unobtrusive character. While some might complain that this is a detriment to a hard-boiled thriller I would argue that it is intentional on Leonard’s part. As LaBrava frequently states, or others mention about LaBrava, he doesn’t pose the subjects of his work. In his role as photographer LaBrava fades to the background letting the subjects choose the pose or, quite simply, catching them candidly. LaBrava’s role in the story is thus similar to his job as photographer. While he remains the reader’s primary means of observation he also serves as a facilitator in introducing the more brightly colored and interesting characters he interacts with. The go-go dancing, car stealing Cundo Rey, the brutish Richard Nobles, the fast-talking Maurice, and many others are all side-characters more vividly drawn then LaBrava himself. It was an effect I quite liked though one that the seasoned crime reader might not appreciate.
In the end I found LaBrava an enjoyable read if not as immediately engaging as some of my previous experiences so far. The dialogue is interesting though bounces back from somewhat mundane to showing a true creative flair. Where the story shines is in the cast of oddball characters that seem to hover around the plot itself (Cundo Rey would later appear in Leonard’s 2009 novel Road Dogs). While I can’t say how LaBrava stacks up against Leonard’s other fiction I can say that it is worth a look for anyone interested in a fascinating story filled with colorful characters; even if that plot is occasionally predictable.