Picks and Pans Review: Killshot

updated 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elmore Leonard

One usual virtue of Leonard's crime-and-punishment fiction (Glitz, Freaky Deaky, Stick) is the attention he pays to giving his characters substance and individuality. That virtue can be a burden, though, when a character seems falsely drawn. That's the case in this novel with Armand Degas, a professional murderer who has a pay-per-hit relationship with organized crime members in the Toronto area. Degas is a veteran at the business, yet when he goes to Detroit to "do" an aging don in the sequence that opens the book, he seems slipshod. (He lets the man go into another room to change clothes before the shooting, for instance, not wondering if the cagey old guy might have a weapon stashed there.) Even more unlikely is the way Degas hooks up with a cheap, vicious punk who tries to steal his car in a town near Detroit. Not only does Degas refrain from killing Richie Nix when he gets the drop on him, but he also agrees to join forces with Nix in a small-time extortion plot against a local real estate agent. Throughout, Degas seems unwary for a big-time criminal.

Most of the story revolves around what happens after Degas and Nix, trying to shake down the real estate man, mistakenly accost the wrong man, ironworker Wayne Colson. Colson ends up fighting them off, but Degas is worried about being identified, and Nix just wants revenge. The two villains stalk Colson and his wife so relentlessly that the Colsons join a witness-protection program. The stalking goes on long after Degas should have decided he'd be safer getting out of town, and a final confrontation pounds another stake in the novel's plausibility. The unconvincing moments are distracting, cutting into the suspense Leonard generates, but he keeps the plot moving fast enough to avoid losing control altogether. Other consolations include Richie's lady friend, a former prison worker who has a passion for cons and Elvis Presley, and Colson's appealing wife, Carmen. Carmen, a loving wife and mother, has some grittiness in her too. She also has a sense of humor about such subjects as her husband's devotion to hunting. When Wayne starts spreading feed for the deer who live near their house, she watches and he tells her, "They love this stuff." "They think what a nice guy you are," she answers. "Then you shoot them." (Arbor House, $18.95)

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