To praise this book with faint damns, it isn't as smooth or ingratiating a crime novel as Leonard's best work.
Too many characters too often behave inconsistently. There are too many implausible turns. And they begin with the 10-foot alligator that early on wreaks havoc on the home of Judge Bob Gibbs, the womanizing Palm Beach County, Fla., jurist whose affinity for severe sentences earns him the nickname of the title.
Still, Leonard's ability to create fascinatingly offbeat personalities hasn't deserted him. Gibbs, who flirts with every woman who appears in his courtroom, is one; Gibbs's wife, an ex—water show mermaid who is devoting her life to such pastimes as reincarnation and crystal burying, is another.
The plot revolves around a group of people who would like to see Gibbs dead and the efforts of Kathy Baker, a probation officer, and Gary Hammond, a police detective, to protect the judge.
Never one to wallow in sentimentality, Leonard keeps things twisting away in hard-boiled fashion—career criminal Elvin Crowe, one of Maximum Bob's most devoted enemies, helps out. And just when you're getting impatient with him, Leonard will come up with a bit of terrifically appropriate, cynically sharp dialogue, such as this response from Gibbs when Baker turns down one of his propositions:
"It's a shame, you've got devilment in you going to waste. Well, I'm not gonna get down on my knees and beg, I'm feeling too frisky for that. You don't want to have fun, there's plenty others'll jump at the chance." (Delacorte, $20)