Archived Reading Room

‘Raylan’ is business as usual for Leonard

Like a growing number of FX addicts, I have become a devoted fan of “Justified” (Timothy Olyphant and Sylva’s own Nick Searcy) that airs each Tuesday night at 10 p.m. This fast-moving, smart-talking, funny and violent show represents the culmination (or harmonious convergence) of several remarkable talents: a short story entitled “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard (which became the basis for the FX series, “Justified”) and the marvelous nuanced acting of Oliphant, who stepped into the custom-made boots of U. S. Marshall Raylan Givens like he was born to play this part.

“Justified” is that rare thing, the merging of Elmore Leonard’s talent for writing dialogue that sizzles and pops like frying bacon, and Olyphant’s uncanny talent for becoming a Kentucky-bred Federal agent who has acquired a reputation for being a little too quick to provoke “violent confrontations.”

Raylan is that rare thing, a novel spawned by a successful television show that is based on an original short story by the same author. Of course, most readers know about this “crime/fiction” writer who has a legendary talent for writing screenplays: Consider this partial list: Valdez is Coming; Hombre; The Moonshine Wars; The Bounty Hunters; Gold Coast; Kill Shot. Leonard’s versatility is astonishing. Frequently, his dialogue is filled with double entendres and “inside jokes”.... like when a character in an episode of of “Justified” picks up the phone during a tension-filled moments, hangs up and turns to tell a crowd of well-armed listeners, “Valdez is Coming.”

Essentially, Elmore Leonard is so pleased with the success of “Justified,” he has decided to write a new novel based on the further adventures of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Raylan vibrates with energy, humor and tension. Take for example the episode that begins with Raylan discovering Angel Arena, a major drug dealer, floating in a hotel bathtub filled with blood, water and ice. Angel’s kidney’s have been removed and someone has closed the incision with a stapler.

Angel survives and the following day, he receives a ransom note that offers to return his kidney’s for $100,000. Before long, Raylan is caught up in one of the most bizarre cases of his career and the personalities are memorable: Dickie and Coover Crowe, two pot-head brothers (and old acquaintances of Raylan’s) who act as “procurers” for an Afro-American nurse named Layla and her con-artist lover, Cuba (pronounced Coo-ba) Franks. Since Layla has “assisted” in hundreds of kidney transplants at Harlan County’s stylish medical center, she is admirably qualified to remove the kidneys of wealthy victims. Coba and Layla are well on their way to becoming millionaires when Raylan shows up and the plot becomes both complicated and kinky.

Then there is Delroy Lewis, a drug-dealing gambler who has developed a profitable business involving topless dancers. The girls are all addicts who have been trained to rob banks and deliver the stolen funds to Delroy. The money rolls in and when any of the dancers become incompetent, Delroy simply shoots them and leaves their bodies in a vacant lot. They are easy to replace.

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Ah, but there is one problem. Delroy has a serious grudge against Raylan Givens and fantasizes about engaging in a western style shootout. Since Delroy has a penchant for cross-dressing, he decides to set a trap in a gambling saloon where he will be disguised as a “statuesque beauty with a platinum wig” with a Smith .357 in his purse. The resulting “gunfight” manages to be tense, terrifying and hilarious.

Raylan is packed with characters that are vitally alive and some of them have become regulars on “Justified.” There is Boyd Crowder, a reluctant employee at the M-T Mining Company which is in the process of destroying the quality of life in Harlan County. As “security officer” for the mining company, Boyd has discovered that his duties include intimidation, bribery and accessory to murder. Carol Conlan, a brutal coal mine executive who has turned into a “Justified” regular, finally gets her due in Harlan when she is shotgunned by a miner’s widow in the local nursing home.

Of course, there is a priceless episode involed in Carol’s demise, but that is possibly this novel’s singular flaw. It possesses an intricate and tangled narrative with events so intertwined, it is nearly impossible to unravel one tale without releasing a half-dozen others. In order to put Carol Conlan’s personality and death in proper perspective, it is necessary to tell the story of Otis Culpepper, the old miner who has become an “inconvenience” to the M-T Mining Company — a problem that Conlan solved by simply shooting the old man. In addition, there is the story of Pervis Crowe, a rugged, old survivalist who sells and/or controls every illegal activity in Harlan County. In addition, there are a dozen marvelous characters who make a brief appearance and then vanish through the nearest exit .... like Jackie Nevada, a college girl/professional gambler who impresses Raylan by winning a million dollars.

Finally, Raylan acquires a pardner in this novel and hopefully, he is going to be around for a long time. He is a former white supremacist with swastika tats named Bill Nichols. Somewhere in his experiments with violence, Bill “saw the light” and became an uncompromising agent for justice.  Raylan and Bill look and act like a matched set, and hopefully he will return often, giving us some fantastic dialogue as these two U. S. Marshalls compare notes on topics like divorce, moonshine, young women and killing people.

Raylan by Elmore Leonard. HarperCollins, 2012. 263 pages.

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