Just say noir?

Jane Smiley's most recent novel is "Ten Days in the Hills."

ONE good thing about being a suspense writer of a certain age is that you acquire a lot of incidental knowledge. At the same time, you remember zeitgeists and events that are mere abstract history to most people. If you’re lucky and you do it right, you get to be a national treasure, like Elmore Leonard.

Now in his 80s, and with 43 books to his credit, Leonard springs eternal. His new novel, “Up in Honey’s Room,” is both enterprising and lively. It is a sequel to “The Hot Kid” (2005), and in some sense to “Comfort to the Enemy,” which ran recently as a serial novel in the New York Times magazine. But “Up in Honey’s Room” is not like “The Hot Kid” or “Comfort to the Enemy.” That’s what I admire.

Those of us who are not suspense writers often wonder how they keep going; careers, after all, are long and plots are few. The era of reassuring and comfortable repetition has long since passed -- suspense writers are now expected to demonstrate ingenuity with every outing and yet produce page turners every time. The devices in which other novelists find refuge (lyrical evocations of landscape, character study, tricks of style) are not so available, for the simple reason that the plot has to make sense. This takes a good proportion of your words, a situation complicated by the fact that suspense novels must also remain relatively compact. There’s a reason James Joyce did not write suspense.

Ever enterprising, Leonard has come up with some characteristic methods of adding texture without padding his novels. One involves writing in short paragraphs, with minimal punctuation. Another is leaving out narrative altogether, which he does as a standard technique. In his books, two characters often describe a bit of action that in another novel might be narrated.


With “Up in Honey’s Room,” Leonard uses this strategy to reintroduce his protagonist, U.S. Marshal Carl Webster, the hot kid. Because he can’t count on our having read “The Hot Kid” (which has a high narrative/dialogue ratio), Leonard has Carl and the other characters here synopsize his adventures to draw us in.

Early in the book, Carl relates a telephone conversation to his father: “I call Kevin, ‘You find my Krauts yet?’ Five months they’ve been looking, no luck. They’re working to get the goods on a Nazi spy ring and have different ones under surveillance. I asked him where the spies got their secret stuff, from the paper? He said I sound like a girl he’s been talking to, Honey Deal. She was married to one of the Detroit Nazis for a year, divorced him in ’39.”

This has a peculiar cinematic effect -- everyone seems to be talking all the time (as in “Get Shorty”), but their dialogue is more about delivering information than it is about an idiosyncratic point of view. This can be disorienting: The action progresses, but the characters get confusing. If you liked Henry James’ “The Awkward Age,” you’ll love “Up in Honey’s Room.”

Unfortunately, Carl isn’t as interesting in “Up in Honey’s Room” as he was in “The Hot Kid.” In fact, Leonard seems a little bored with him now that he’s a married man and chasing after war criminals rather than gangsters. But maybe that’s because the author’s attention has shifted to history and geography.


One intriguing motif of “Up in Honey’s Room” is black-market meat sales during World War II. The eponymous Honey is of interest to Carl because her first husband, Walter, is a Nazi sympathizer surrounded by a network of associates and a motley crew of spies and escaped prisoners of war. Walter is a butcher who buys cows from local farmers, then kills them in his barn. “Cruelty to Animals says you got to stun the girl,” one character notes in a particularly expressive bit of dialogue, “so she won’t feel it when you hoist her up head down and slice through her arteries and look out, take a quick step back. You aren’t wearin’ that rubber apron ‘cause it’s rainin’ out.”

Other motifs abound. There are the wardrobe choices made by one spy, a Bulgarian heterosexual who professes to be a homosexual and cross-dresses as a disguise. He has good taste, though.

Or there is the geography of Detroit: A reader could be forgiven for thinking that, with “Up in Honey’s Room” in hand, she might get from one end of that city to the other without too many wrong turns.

It’s possible that “Up in Honey’s Room” is written the way it is because it’s already on the way to being a motion picture. The characters seem to be waiting for actors to inhabit them. Honey herself is described as a Lauren Bacall type (as in “Just whistle”). It is also true that the fascinating details that lend the novel verisimilitude would be great on screen, in black and white, or maybe washed-out colors. Honey is a blond -- repeat, blond -- as no one has been a blond since 1945. There is an extended scene of full frontal nudity too, where Carl is faced with the decision of whether to give in to temptation or not.


But there is also plenty of Leonard’s trademark wit and trademark benevolence. Yes, the novel abounds in Nazis, real and false, but when they get what they deserve, it isn’t always being blown away by a machine gun (Schmeisser, later renamed).

As a result, “Up in Honey’s Room” is a picture I would go see, because it wouldn’t really be noir at all but, rather, a worldly sendup of noir, written and directed by a man who was there, but who has been to a lot of other places since.