Elmore Leonard's tough, cool heroes and dialogue don't compensate for how one-dimensional his characters are, or how his plots limp to unsatisfying conclusions. Because his showdowns are always between brave, smart heroes and stupid, feckless villains, all suspense is drained from the stories.
This collection feels tired and recycled, as though Leonard was trying to create a meal out of three-day-old leftovers. He drags in characters from his novels, but doesn't give them anything fresh to do.
In two of the longer stories, the hero comes back to his home town, reconnects with the formerly-married woman whom he longed for but never slept with in high school, and winds up in the woman's kitchen facing down the leader of a group of moronic, white-trash criminals. Sure, one villain is eating fried chicken, and the other just wants a cup of coffee, but that difference hardly makes the plots distinct.
In two other stories a woman commits a crime and is then blackmailed by a person who knows about it. Yep, that's supposed to be the clever denouement.
For far more inventive plots, try "Twisted," Jeffrey Deaver's fun collection of crime/suspense stories. Deaver really knows how to surprise you.
"The Practical Heart" has some fine writing, but also some awkward constructions and digressions that repeatedly chop up the flow of the stories.
The title story has a postmodern shift that distracted me and broke my emotional involvement with the main character. You're reading about a nephew writing about his aunt, then you learn the nephew was fictionalizing her life. The rest of the story is his true picture of her and their relationship, which is far less engaging.
In the second story, "Preservation News," the writing becomes even more precious and self-indulgent. Gurganus beats the reader over the head with forced whimsy.
For me the final straw came during the first conversation between a young historical preservationist and a widowed eastern North Carolina matron. Encouraging her to help with his work, he says, "You need to get your excellent, sinewy ass in gear, girl."
I'm from eastern North Carolina, I've met hundreds of matrons, and I have several gay friends, one of whom does historical preservation. I can assure you that Gurganus' line would never be spoken in the situation he presents. It was so absolutely phony that, coming after the book's other annoyances, I lost all interest in continuing.
Flashfire is wonderful noir, stripped of purple prose and affectation.
The protagonist may be cold, but he's tough and smart, and he adheres at least to some criminals' code of honor. (Basically: Don't screw your partners.)
The dialogue and the propulsive plot are smart, too. Stark writes with economy and accuracy, like a boxer throwing stinging jabs or crisp combinations.
For the most part Stark avoids stereotypes like kinky serial killers, moronic small-time criminals and renegade detectives who argue with their superiors. His minor characters, like the real estate saleswoman, the small-town lawman and the Palm Beach socialites, are briefly drawn, but well-limned.
I also enjoyed Stark's matter-of-fact use of criminal tradecraft, and the leavening, on-target humor he aims at the wealthy menagerie that occupies Palm Beach.
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