Friday’s Forgotten Book: Pronto by Elmore Leonard

Pronto by Elmore Leonard (Delacorte Press, 1993) is the first appearance in print of Raylan Givens, the U.S. Marshal who featured in the FX series Justified from March 2010 to April 2015. The television series was based on Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” but this book describes the back story of Givens’ dealings with a Miami mobster that’s summarized in the initial episode.

Harry Arno is a bookmaker in Miami. He’s been skimming the profits due his silent mobster partners for years without comment from law enforcement or Jimmy Capotorto, the local boss. Suddenly Jimmy realizes Harry has been skimming and now wants revenge. Harry panics after Jimmy sends an incompetent assassin to settle the score, kills him, and then is under arrest, as the shooter’s gun mysteriously disappears and it looks like Harry killed an unarmed man. Local police urge Harry to turn state’s evidence against Jimmy, only Harry knows nothing good can come of it.

While Harry dithers, various law enforcement representatives are assigned to watch his hotel lobby to ensure he doesn’t jump bail. One of them is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s met Harry before. Givens was escorting Harry, who had been subpoenaed as a federal witness, to Chicago from Miami when Harry escaped at the Atlanta airport, leaving Givens with a major blot on his record with the U.S. Marshals Service. He’s determined to recoup his previous blunder. Unfortunately Harry evades him once again and is on a plane to Italy before anyone knows he’s gone. Completely mortified, Givens takes personal leave to follow Harry and bring him back.

In the meantime, the Miami mobsters are restive under the fading leadership of Jimmy and begin positioning themselves to take over his holdings, resulting in backbiting and quarreling. The various girlfriends sense the way the wind is blowing and quietly arrange to move on to greener and safer pastures. Leonard captures the personalities and the motivations of these lowlifes perfectly.

Givens finds Harry and his girlfriend in a country villa near Rapallo, protects them from the local shooting talent, and moves them safely out of Italy. Harry doesn’t make it easy, as he’s self-absorbed, paranoid, and generally obnoxious. The contrast between the soft American gangsters and their hard-as-nails Italian counterparts is sharply and starkly drawn.

It is impossible for me not to compare the book to the television series. Givens of the book is not quite Givens of the television series. He is still from Harlan County, Kentucky; wears a Stetson; was a coal miner; is a recognized sharpshooter; has an ex-wife who eloped with a real estate agent. In the book though he’s a bit of a country bumpkin everyone ridicules, sometimes to his face. It’s when he’s forced into a confrontation that his core strain of ruthlessness and implacability hidden by the good old boy façade emerges. Some folks live to regret their misjudgment and others don’t.

Absorbing read for someone who hasn’t seen Justified and great background for someone who has. Recommended.

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