Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Elmore Leonard was one of the most highly respected of American writers of gritty novels. As you’ll no doubt know, he wrote short stories and Westerns, too, several of which have been adapted for film. This feature has gone on long enough without including some of his work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Maximum Bob, published in 1991.
‘Maximum Bob’ is the nickname given to Florida judge Bob Isom Gibbs because of the severity of the sentences he metes out. Even petty criminals find themselves saddled with long sentences. His friends and his wife Leanne call him ‘Big,’ and he has influence all over the county.
Gibbs has a very wandering eye, and the rest of him is rarely far behind. So he is quick to notice Kathy Diaz Baker, a probation officer who appears in his court one day. One of her parolees, Dale Crowe, has gotten arrested again, and she has an interest in what’s going to happen to him. Crowe gets a stiff jail sentence and Baker tries to do what she can for her client. It’s not long before the judge decides he’s interested in her.
In the meantime, real trouble starts when an alligator is found at Gibbs’ house. The animal does its share of damage, but doesn’t injure anyone. Still, it’s dangerous, and the police are called in. The alligator is killed, and Gibbs wants to make as little of the incident as possible. But Gary Hammond, the police officer who goes to the scene, wonders how it got there and whether it might have been put there deliberately. If so, this could constitute a threat to the judge’s life, or that of his wife.
Then, things get more serious. One night, shots are fired into the judge’s house. He’s unhurt, but it’s now clear that someone is trying to kill him. And as Hammond finds out, there are several possible suspects, many of whom are on Baker’s parolee list. Crowe is certainly one. So is his uncle Elvin, who’s had plenty of brushes with the law himself. And then there’s Dicky Compau, a low-life small-time poacher who’s been in trouble with Gibbs more than once. There’s also Tomás ‘Dr. Tommy’ Vasco, who’s recently been released from prison (after also appearing in Gibbs’ court), and is now restricted to his house.
Since she’s dealt with all of these people, Baker ends up getting involved in finding out who is trying to kill the judge. And it doesn’t make things any easier that both Gibbs and Elvin Crowe are interested in her for very unprofessional reasons. Still, Baker and Hammond work together on the case. In the end, and after more than one death, they find out the truth.
This story takes place in Palm Beach County, Florida, and Leonard places the reader there. The geography, the culture, and the types of people we encounter in the story are distinctly South Florida. So is the alligator.
The story is gritty, as Leonard’s tend to be. Many of the characters are, quite frankly, low-life types; several have been in prison. This isn’t a group of clean-scrubbed people in a drawing room staring in shock as the sleuth unmasks the killer. There are drug dealers, low-rent hookers, animal poachers, and other ‘regulars’ in a probation officer’s life. Many of these characters have links to each other, too, and unraveling those threads is a good part of what leads to the solution in this case. The judge himself isn’t exactly a model citizen. He’s racist and sexist, and of course, known for doling out sentences that are out of proportion to the crimes at hand.
We also see the grit in the story in the dialogue. Readers who dislike a lot of profanity, bigoted or sexist slurs, and homophobic slurs will want to know that the language in the novel reflects all of that. That said, though, it’s not just done for effect or ‘shock value.’ Like much of Leonard’s work, this novel depicts authentically the way some real-life people speak.
The story is told from the perspectives of different characters. So we learn quite a bit about them. Gibbs, for instance, has his faults (and they are legion!), but he is also fond of nature and has a streak of idealism. His wife Leanne is, on the surface, a modern-day New Age hippie, more concerned with auras than with everyday life. But she is shrewder than people think.
Several parts of the story are told from Baker’s point of view, so we learn about her, too. She is divorced (and glad of it!), and getting fed up with her life as a parole officer. She does her job well, though, and works effectively with the rest of the parole team. Still, it’s not spoiling the story to say that in the course of it, she finds an interest in law enforcement. Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate Kathy Baker.
The story doesn’t have what you’d call a happy ending. Leonard doesn’t gloss over the impact that death has on people, and it’s clear that things are not going to be all right again for some of the characters. But there are moments of dark wit in the book. For instance, at one point, Baker and her fellow parole officers are discussing their current cases and swapping stories about them:
‘‘I catch this guy leaving his house after curfew? He goes, ‘Oh, my phone ain’t working. I was jes’ going someplace to call you.’ Like a bar.’
‘Or, you want a problem? They’re under house arrest and get evicted for not paying their rent.’’
This snippet also shows Leonard’s trademark writing style. As he himself said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’
Maximum Bob is the distinctly South Florida story of a group of criminals and convicts, and what happens when they cross paths with a ‘hanging judge.’ It features a probation officer who isn’t afraid to do her job, and a police officer who’s trying to prevent a murder. It also features Elmore Leonard’s inimitable writing style and dark wit. But what’s your view? Have you read Maximum Bob? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 8 February/Tuesday, 9 February – The Unquiet Dead – Ausma Zehanat Khan
Monday, 15 February/Tuesday, 16 February – Bullet For a Star – Stuart Kaminsky
Monday, 22 February/Tuesday, 23 February – The Lying-Down Room – Anna Jaquiery