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A Honey of a novel

Elmore again provides snap, crackle and pop

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Let's see, we've got an SS German prisoner of war cavorting with a Jewish thief, an Oklahoma U.S. Marshal flirting with the ex-wife of a suspicious German-born Detroit butcher and Nazi sympathizer and, for good measure, a bisexual cold-blooded killer from Odessa bungling a triple murder in Motown.

If this sounds like a typically bizarre cast from an Elmore Leonard novel, that's because it is. The Honey of the title, Honey Deal, is a wisecracking beauty and former wife of Walter Schoen, a dead ringer for Himmler who perpetuates the myth that he is Himmler's twin brother. Schoen, a butcher, envisions a glorious martyrdom involving a far-fetched scheme to fly a plane into the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga., and assassinate FDR.

All of this Nazi nastiness draws the attention of the FBI, but a more worrisome development for the bad guys looms in the figure of Carl Webster, star of Leonard's 2005 novel, The Hot Kid. (The new novel can be enjoyed on a stand-alone basis.)

Nearing 40, Webster remains sly and cocky, not to mention being a crack shot and a minor celebrity thanks to a bit of pulp nonfiction. As a marshal, he counts 12 crooks as victims of his now-famed .38 revolver. Turns out Webster knew the two German POWs believed to be on the lam in Detroit -- both were imprisoned at an Oklahoma detention facility before breaking loose.

This being Leonard, one of the escapees, Jurgen, enjoyed jawing with Webster as the two exchanged barbs and snapped off one-liners in Oklahoma. And the other POW? In a beautiful bit of homage, Leonard names him Otto Penzler, a nod to the proprietor of New York's legendary Mysterious Bookshop. Late in the novel, after Penzler befriends a Jewish art thief in a Detroit department store and seeks refuge with her in Cleveland, he calls Jurgen and tells him of plans to open a bookstore that traffics only in, yes, mysteries.

Though Webster wears cowboy boots and knows his way around a cattle ranch, he hardly could be described as a bumpkin. Carl wears his hat just so, much as he wears notoriety: with aplomb.

Louly Webster, wife of Carl, is a bit of pistol -- and assorted additional artillery -- herself. She is off in North Carolina training Marines to be better marksmen when Carl decides to drive cross-country in pursuit of the fugitive German POWs. Her absence makes the sizzling interplay between Carl and Honey Deal all the more appealing. An incorrigible flirt, Honey Deal toys with Carl even as she stands impressed by his cool demeanor and easy confidence. Carl vowed eternal faithfulness when he married Louly, but Honey presents the ultimate test:

Carl liked the way she offered him a drink when he came to pick her up, Honey saying he could have anything he wanted as long as it was rye. He liked her in the black sweater and skirt and the way the slit in the skirt opened as she walked to the kitchen.

Carl needs Honey to help him track Walter and the rest of the Nazi sympathizers Walter socializes with while conjuring futile plans to help the German cause as the war winds down. To add a little more spice to matters, Honey's ex-convict brother arrives to work on Walter's suburban home-killing cattle operation, trading in illegal beef.

Honey left Walter in 1939. Much of the novel takes place five years later, as Carl chases the POWs and the Allied powers gain the upper hand overseas.

As always, Leonard goes easy on what he once dismissed as the hooptedoodle. No weather scenes, no extraneous philosophical musings, just effortless snappy dialogue and a comfortable plot that eats up paragraphs at a breezy clip.

The Nazi spy ring combines the ruthless with the ridiculous. Walter bores everyone with dull speculation on his Himmler connection, Jurgen longs to join the rodeo and become a real-life cowboy, yet another proves to be a cruel cross-dresser.

Leonard again peppers his cast with pop-culture cachet. They laud Hemingway, dismiss Zane Grey and always, always trade in Hollywood lore, from Cary Grant to Clark Gable and beyond.

Sure, bullets fly, but, as with most Leonard novels, things really move when the dialogue gets going. A typical exchange: "You know the word hoosgow (sic)?" Comes the reply: "It's the jail in a Gene Autry movie."

Somewhere, Chili Palmer must be laughing his head off.

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