KILLSHOT by Elmore Leonard, New York: Arbor House, 287 pp., $18.95.
FAST approaching his 30th novel, Elmore Leonard is as dependable as a Ford used to be and as knowing as a New York fashion designer. Not the least satisfaction in his most recent novel is his attempt to create a female character with the kind of male qualities demanded by the plot.
Leonard's plot - suave and violent as ever - is driven by precisely observed types. An aging Ojibway hit man named Armand Degas, a.k.a. Blackbird, who works for the mob in Toronto, meets Richie Nix, a demented punk.
Together they try to destroy two regular Americans, Wayne and Carmen Colson, who happen to be at the scene of the crime. Wayne is an ironworker. He likes walking on beams high over the city streets. His wife, Carmen, sells real estate.
The plot unfolds with almost predictable precision. Predictable because Leonard is a master of tight plotting, almost because the instantly graspable scenes flow with a richness that can come only from nous (thought), not just craftsmanship. What enriches technique is the complex of themes embodied in Carmen.
``Killshot'' rests on the shaky/firm foundations of the Colsons' vintage 1907 farmhouse, with deer on the property for Wayne to hunt: the house Carmen and Wayne bought after their son joined the Navy and they could have no more children; the house they love to argue about; the house that becomes a deadly trap; the house whose windows are shot out by a trigger-happy Richie; the house they move away from under the protection of federal agents; the house they return to for the stay-up-all-night conclusion.
Scenes are equally and rhythmically divided between the evil and good characters. This sandwiching technique creates a kind of vertigo not as neat as the title. The title ``Killshot'' comes from one of the several lectures Armand gives Richie as he tries to turn him into a professional killer. The killshot is the one shot a true pro needs to murder someone. The theory of killshot is one thing; it becomes messy when added to Richie's touchy pathology. Armand is getting old. The plot turns on his losing it, forgetting to practice the very lessons he tried to teach Richie.
Leonard does not dabble in psychology or sociology. Crime is. Leonard takes us inside the criminal mind - or minds, since Armand and Richie differ widely in motive and self-understanding. Each plans, eventually, to ``do'' the other. Their murderous duet is complicated by a finely drawn portrait of Richie's girl (who hopes Armand will kill Richie), and syncopated with incidental characters close to the Colsons, especially Carmen's mom, a retired telephone operator who innocently delivers herself and daughter into the cold hands of Richie, and a federal agent who can't keep his hands off Carmen.
In ``Killshot,'' there's more good at stake than usual in a Leonard novel. Indeed, this is how he takes risks this time round. He creates a genuinely attractive couple. The Colsons are red-white-and-blue American, straight out of a Merle Haggard song. But like Armand, they are no longer young. In quiet domestic scenes we see that they have become a little too used to each other. Wayne is unselfconsciously sexy - which will help move the books through the bookstores - but a little boy at heart. Carmen is like one of Shakespeare's heroines in her capable womanhood.
In the end, Carmen must finish what Wayne starts when he beats Armand and Richie with an iron bar from his toolbox; but she doesn't finish it before we learn even more about the attraction of evil to good, about how good can survive by simulating evil, and about the difficulties that poses for Carmen.
Carmen influences even the patented Leonard comic touch. The humor in ``Killshot'' ranges from crude, explicit male humor to something new, a thread of pure good humor that becomes visible not so much in detachable scenes as in character. Wayne is a good man, but lives in a fantasy world of hunting and work. Carmen is no supermom - she doesn't know how to bake a pie or care to learn - she lives close to the inchoate, mute flow of things.
The wave of terror crests at a still moment with Armand and Carmen alone in the old farmhouse, waiting for Wayne. Richie sits in a chair, dead: Armand killed him, but not before Richie made Carmen strip to her underwear. We are made to feel Armand's weariness. He's forgetting everything he ever knew about killing people - like you don't make eye contact if you can help it.
She stands; he sits at the table with two pistols on it. Armand asks Carmen if she'd ever shot a Model 27 Smith & Wesson.
``It caught her by surprise. She looked at him a moment before shaking her head.
`Good,' Armand said. Their eyes held for another moment and he was sorry he had spoken to her.''
Eventually, in a finely re-created scene of remembering the house, Carmen relocates a gun that becomes a true extension of her femininity.
The final scene is expertly prolonged and exquisitely rounded off. Together Armand and Carmen wait for Wayne's return. She proves too much for Armand. ``You walked in my house!'' she explains to the dying, still incredulous Armand.
In a world made terrifying by men, Carmen tips the balance toward good. Carmen is what many suspense novelists - men and women - have tried to create lately, a woman feminine enough to be a man when the plot demands. Leonard is still the best in the business because with ``Killshot'' he's risen, again, to the occasion and created a novel that satisfies.