Miami Beach bookie Harry Arno is used to playing the odds, skimming money from gangster Jimmy "Cap" Capotorto, and socking away a cool million in a Swiss bank account. The game turns sour, however, when the FBI tips off the mob about Arno's skimming in an attempt to scare and 'flip' Harry into becoming a federal witness against Cap. After Cap orders the hit, Harry shoots one of Cap's trigger men and flees to Italy, where he dreams of living an idyllic existence with his girlfriend Joyce in a villa by the sea. Following Harry to Italy is mob enforcer Tommy Bucks and U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens.
Elmore Leonard is the best-selling author of more than three dozen novels. His work is often pipelined straight to Hollywood, where his novels have been adapted for several blockbuster films such as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Jackie Brown (Rum Punch).
'Pronto' is a strange pot-boiler, the plot driven by three characters: Harry, Tommy, and Raylan. Harry is constantly reminiscing about World War II; Tommy carries a picture of the old crime boss Frank Costello in his wallet; Raylan is a cowboy. All three men are anachronisms, stuck in a world without honor, while pining for a nobler past.
Unfortunately, 'Pronto' is primarily the story of Harry Arno, one of the most unlikable protagonists in contemporary fiction. Harry is a self-centered jerk and liar, so lacking in human grace that he seems almost autistic, unable to relate to anyone. Note the following line, after the fortyish, childless Joyce admits to Harry a yearning to be a mother:
"You're not the mommy type, kiddo."
After Joyce's hotel room is trashed by Mafia killers, she mentions Raylan's kindness after he brings her luggage to the villa. Harry replies:
"He's used to picking up suitcases, doing the heavy work. It's the kind of law enforcement he's in."
There's an emotional deadness in Harry that makes the flesh crawl. Leonard has purposely cast Harry this way, perhaps as a literary stunt, yet it ultimately cripples what could have been an excellent thriller. When a reader becomes alienated from the novel's main character, any emotional investment in the story is lost. Readers will also wonder why Raylan and Joyce care so much about Harry, who treats both with condescending disdain. After one hundred pages into 'Pronto', most will be rooting for Tommy Bucks, vainly hoping that he will blow Harry's head off.
Nevertheless, Leonard has an uncanny gift for staging dramatic action sequences that keeps the reader turning pages until the final bloody climax. When depicting the dark side of human nature, Leonard is masterful; yet he flounders when depicting noble men and women. Raylan is the sheriff in this spaghetti western, and Joyce is the long-suffering hooker with the heart of gold. Yet neither seems as real as Tommy Bucks, the most compelling character in 'Pronto', whose motive and ambition is clear and focused.
'Pronto' is a clever and entertaining novel, yet one senses that a piece is missing, a center to hold everything together. That missing piece is Harry Arno, who is as lifeless and vapid at the end of this novel as he was at the beginning.