American students in Rome, McCabe and Chip - the latter the son of a prominent US senator - embark on a drunken prank one night when they hijack a taxi. Thrown in prison to await trial, the pair are separated, and McCabe locks horns with gang member Mazara. When McCabe and Chip are finally released, after Chip’s father pulls some strings, a photograph published in a local newspaper confuses their names under their photograph. Shortly afterwards, McCabe meets the beautiful Angela when he foils an attempt to mug her; capitalising on his opportunity, and hoping to score a date, McCabe is drawn into a sting in which, mistaken for Chip, he is kidnapped by Mazara’s gang. Released when the ransom is paid, McCabe decides to track down the kidnappers and have the ransom repaid.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, Sharon’s marriage to Ray is falling apart, mostly because Ray, a Secret Service agent, spends much of his time on the road. Embarking on an affair with the flamboyant Joey Palermo, Sharon finds herself swept off her feet. When Ray arrives home after being sacked from the Secret Service, he discovers that Sharon is missing. Setting out to track her down, Ray discovers that Joey Palermo is a Mafia mobster, who has suddenly departed the country for Rome.
The various storylines converge in Rome, as Joey Palermo, nephew to Rome’s Mr Mafia, muscles in on Mazara’s gang, just as McCabe kidnaps Angela in order to retrieve the ransom that was paid for his release. Meanwhile, Ray is hot on the trail of Sharon, who will lead him directly to Joey …
ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL is Peter Leonard’s third novel, following QUIVER (2008) and TRUST ME (2009). He is the son of legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard, and it’s fair to say that ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL has all the hallmarks of a Leonard novel. The multi-character narrative, the dry and blackly whimsical humour, the unfussy use of American vernacular, the ordinary man underestimated by the criminal fraternity who proves himself a resolute hero.
The two main characters in the novel are very likeable. McCabe is an ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and it’s refreshing to read a lead protagonist in a crime novel who isn’t a swaggering, bullet-proof hero with limitless resources of strength, courage, intellect, etc. Having said that, his decision to pursue his kidnappers with the aim of retrieving the ransom posed some problems for me, especially as he’s a stranger in a strange land. Leonard never really explains McCabe’s motive for doing so, other than to suggest that his personal principles are insulted by the notion that someone else’s money was paid for his release. It’s difficult to believe that a young American in his early ’20s would make that decision, to go up against what might as well be a Mafia gang on their own turf; and, as that decision propels the story forward from that point onwards, there’s always a question mark hanging over the authenticity of the story and McCabe himself.
Ray, meanwhile, is another likeable character: a taciturn Everyman with the kind of resources that the conventional crime novel hero tends to have, even if he very rarely employs them. My problem with Ray, however, is that he is very reminiscent of a number of Elmore Leonard’s cop characters - Elmore Leonard has created a number of characters called Ray - and that Peter Leonard’s Ray comes across as a facsimile of more sharply drawn and interesting Rays from his father’s oeuvre.
The novel has a cracking pace, which benefits from Leonard’s cross-cutting between characters, particularly as the story gains momentum. It’s particularly pleasing that Leonard tells his story in such a relaxed and deadpan fashion, so that the reader is never really aware of how quickly events are moving.
That said, the rapid pace requires some considerable suspension of disbelief. The most notable example comes when McCabe and Angela, two hard-headed and pragmatic characters, fall in love almost overnight, this despite the fact that Angela is the daughter of a Mafia don, and McCabe has kidnapped her. Angela isn’t even in McCabe’s company long enough for Stockholm syndrome to set in; the plot requires them to establish an unbreakable bond, and so they declare themselves mutually infatuated. Given that Leonard almost entirely eschews melodramatic twists and turns, this moment stands out as a glaring anomaly.
The style of the novel is equally pleasing. As with his father, Peter Leonard is a devout disciple of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of storytelling, and he employs language designed to tell the story in as simple and straightforward a fashion as possible. Despite doing so, he’s also adept at inserting telling descriptive phrases, and does a very nice job of evoking both the busy streets and architecture of Rome, as well as the quieter rural hinterland where much of the latter stages of the novel plays out.
On the downside, it has to be said that the novel lacks heft. It’s a relatively short novel at 292 pages, but brevity doesn’t necessarily mean that a novel will lack depth. While Leonard creates characters that are entertaining in themselves, and in their interaction with other characters, it’s difficult for the reader to get a good feel for them - there’s a sense that the characters do no more, and are no more, than the plot requires of them. That’s not to say that a character should necessarily come laden down with bags of backstory funnelled into the story for the sake of it; but each should have depth and breadth, and particularly in a story such as ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL, which is to all intents and purposes a crime comedy caper, a sense that they have an existence beyond the parameters of the novel, that the story we’re reading is an anomaly in their lives.
Leonard, aiming to write a novel that tells the story with the bare minimum of words, achieves his goal and does it with style and wit; by the same token, I was always aware that I was reading a novel in which one obstacle after another is contrived and placed in the protagonists’ way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; for example, Carl Hiaasen’s comedy crime capers are excellent examples of archly contrived parodies of the genre. Leonard appears to fall between two stools, however; this novel arches a knowing eyebrow at the conventions of the comedy crime novel without fully delivering on that kind of novel’s inherent absurdities; meanwhile, his characters, and particularly those regarded as the bad guys, lack the banal evil so brilliantly evoked by Elmore Leonard.
I probably sound a lot harsher on ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL than I mean to be; for all my criticisms (and constantly comparing Peter Leonard to his father is as odious as comparison gets), I enjoyed the novel as a light, breezy take on the comedy crime caper, particularly given its neatly evoked setting of Rome and its environs. So far, Peter Leonard has written three standalone novels, but if he were to write another featuring McCabe, I’d be sufficiently interested in McCabe as a character to investigate further.
Would I recommend this novel? I think that any crime fiction fan who hasn’t read an Elmore Leonard novel will thoroughly enjoy it; it’s fun, it’s fast, it’s rooted in an enjoyably exotic setting. As for the other side of that recommendation, that ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL lacks the heft of an Elmore Leonard novel, well, it’s probably fair to say that there are very few living writers who can match Elmore Leonard. - Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.