Near the end of this 1983 novel, Ernest Stickley's prospective love interest tags him as "basically a straight-shooter, within your own frame of values," thus defining the protagonist of nearly every Leonard book I have read. There's a bit of the same-old formula here, which some may love more than me.
Of course, this isn't the first time Leonard has featured Stickley in a novel. He appeared a few years before in "Swag," as half of a robbery partnership. Now alone again, and out of prison, Stickley finds himself quickly on the wrong side of a Florida drug deal gone bad. Though wanted, Stickley wants something, too, the money he was promised for delivering the merchandise, and in a roundabout way that involves working as a chauffeur for a shady businessman, he sets about getting it.
"Swag" was a good book, with flashes of real brilliance. There you stayed for the ambiance and the dialogue but found yourself swept along by a plot that became more intricate and clever by the page. I think Leonard was after a similar effect here, only half succeeding. The central story involving the drug dealers grabs you, but then takes a back seat as Leonard puts Stickley and the reader inside a large estate along Biscayne Bay, where stock touting and mistress shuffling are S.O.P. under the shade of the acacia trees.
Leonard has a lot of fun introducing us to the goofy household where Stick lies low for a while. Colorful writing predominates as owner Barry Stam endlessly works the phones playing the market while trying to impress Stick with his street attitude, which Stick finds too forced by half. Stick finds Stam's wife and mistress more to his liking.
At one point, Stam introduces some of his druglord buddies to a movie producer who wants their financial backing for his latest picture. It's the book's funniest, most memorable moment, with the producer picking the wrong time for some ethnic humor as he flogs an unpromising film about a pair of undercover Miami cops doing battle with drug smugglers called "Shuck And Jive."
Leonard clearly sends up some choice moments he had dealing with obtuse Hollywood money men over the years. It's interesting also to note that the idea, however half-baked, does sound a lot like the TV series "Miami Vice," launched just a year after this book was published to great fanfare that seemed to spill over to Leonard's novels, starting with his 1985 breakout classic "Glitz."
But "Stick" never works as well in the crime fiction department. It's not bad, just weird in the wrong places. The villains don't seem to know why they want Stick dead, while Stick isn't looking for money or revenge as much as some ill-defined sense of honor, which is expressed in the various ways he takes to crushing one of the villain's cowboy hats. The result is a book cruising on attitude in lieu of a plot. I still don't get how Stick thought he was going to get away with his plan, which seems to fall together rather haphazardly.
"Stick" was later made into a Burt Reynolds movie, memorable only for one famous stunt which shows up here in far less spectacular form. It's par for the course with a book that promises more than it delivers.