Yesterday I wrote that it was impossible to pick a favorite Elmore Leonard novel. But when I went to pick up one to re-read last night, I reached for Pronto without even having to think about it. It’s the first of Leonard’s works to star Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The first part of the book focuses an aging Miami bookmaker, Harry Arno, one of Leonard’s most visceral characters. I hate to use the cliché “leaps off the page,” except that he does. Harry is greedy and self-absorbed and a bit of a whiner but you just love this guy because he’s so real. He might be old, but his girlfriend is a stacked ex-stripper named Joyce, and you can totally see them together.
Harry is in trouble with the Mob for skimming profits off the top of his bookie operation. So he sneaks off to Italy, which he loves because he fought there in World War II and because of a brief acquaintance with Ezra Pound in an Army stockade.
But the Mob isn’t the only organization that wants Harry. The Justice Department wants him to testify against his old (and peeved) boss, Jimmy Cap. So Raylan is sent to bring Harry home before Cap can have him killed. And, oh yeah, Harry already got away from Raylan once — the only stain on Raylan’s record as a deputy marshal.
Leonard poured his heart into bringing Harry to life. Here’s a guy pushing 70 with about a million dollars of stolen Mob money in a Swiss account, dating a former stripper only half his age, and who once gave the slip to a cowboy marshal — and you believe every last bit of it. That’s some amazing writing.
Problem is, Harry Arno loses control of his own story. Rather, Elmore Leonard lost control of his own novel.