Elmore Leonard's LaBrava brings to life the illogic of criminals and crime; LaBrava, by Elmore Leonard. Arbor House. 283 pp. $14.95

By , James Kaufmann teaches writing at the University of Iowa.

Elmore Leonard likes his characters. He knows where they live, how they live, what they will and won't do, and, especially, how they talk and what they talk about. What Raymond Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett applies equally to Leonard: ''He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.''

The characters in Leonard's novels - from the process server Jack Ryan in ''Unknown Man No. 89'' (1977) to the crazy killer Clement Mansell in ''City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit'' (1980), from the laconic Ernest Stickley Jr. of ''Swag'' (1975) and ''Stick'' (1983) to the redneck punk Richard Nobles in ''LaBrava'' (1983) - speak the language of felons, low life, street people. Leonard has always had an affection for what he calls ''underdogs.'' Hammett ''took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley,'' and Leonard does the same for murderers' speech.

It's taken a while for people to catch onto Leonard, though. ''Stick,'' his last novel, finally brought him the scrutiny of the critical establishment: The book was widely and favorably reviewed. But like most overnight successes, Leonard had been writing good fiction for a long time - since 1953, in fact, when ''The Bounty Hunters'' was published. He is also a veteran screenwriter.

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''LaBrava'' is his 18th novel, and at its center is Joseph LaBrava: ex-Secret Service agent, ex-IRS agent turned South Miami Beach street photographer who ''shoots barefaced fact. He's got the feel and he makes you feel it,'' says his friend, Maurice Zola, himself a former FSA photographer and now owner of the hotel where LaBrava lives.

LaBrava accompanies Zola one night to pick up a woman friend of Zola's from a city crisis center and runs into one Richard Nobles (''the kind of guy - LaBrava knew by sight, smell, and instinct - who hung around bars and arm-wrestled''). Nobles is there to get the same woman. He makes trouble. LaBrava subdues him - he takes away Nobles's gun, sits on him, puts the gun in Nobles's mouth, and the action is under way.

The woman they retrieve is Jean Shaw, once a famous actress, ''the movie star ,'' LaBrava realizes as he develops prints of her in his darkroom, ''he had fallen in love with the first time he had fallen in love in his life, when he was twelve years old.''

''LaBrava'' hinges on the movies, specifically on Jean Shaw's confusions about reality: She constantly speaks lines from movies she has starred in. Worse , the amateurish and confusing extortion scheme that is the apparent center of the novel is a near-replica of the crime committed in ''Obituary,'' a movie she starred in with Victor Mature.

LaBrava's photography and Shaw's inability to separate movies and life raise the inevitable questions about illusion and reality. And while Leonard does bring that subject up on occasion, he's too good a writer to let major statements interfere with a good story told in wonderfully lean prose. For example, here is LaBrava looking out his window:

What he saw from the window was timeless, a Florida post card. The strip of park across the street. The palm trees in place, the sea grape. The low wall you could sit on made of coral rock and gray cement. And the beach. What a beach. A desert full of people resting, it was so wide. People out there with blankets and umbrellas. People in the green part of the ocean, before it turned deep blue. People so small they could be from any time. Turn the view around. Sit on the coral wall and look this way at the hotels on Ocean Drive and see back into the thirties. (Page 53.)

No waste here. Leonard's characters are as precise as his syntax. In ''LaBrava,'' there is Nobles, who once killed and ate an eagle, a rent-a-cop with oversize dreams; Cundo Rey, a murderer boatlifted from Cuba who drives a Trans-Am and works as a male stripper when he isn't stealing things; and Paco Boza, a cocaine addict who travels around in a wheelchair stolen from Eastern Airlines.

These (and other) players assembled, the novel jump-cuts back and forth from Shaw to Nobles to Zola to cops to Rey to LaBrava and so on. The pace Leonard sets is fast, and is at times confusing, to the characters as well as readers. At the end is a double-cross, and a lovely ironic twist.

Elmore Leonard does not traffic in heavy symbolism or large ideas. What makes his work memorable is his uncompromisingly direct prose, his affectionately crafted yet very real characters, and, of course, the fact that Leonard knows that providing entertainment is the novelist's first commandment. Nobody brings the illogic of crime and criminals to life better.

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