Monday, May 12, 2014

Raylan Givens Is on the Job

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

I've long been a huge fan of the books of Elmore Leonard, and I've also really enjoyed the television series, "Justified," which is based on Leonard's excellent short story, "Fire in the Hole." Given that, I was really anxious to finally have the chance to pull Raylan off my giant stack of Books-to-Read and have at it. I'm sorry to say, though, that the book did not live up to my (perhaps exaggerated) expectations of it.

Reading the book, it felt to me like Leonard might have decided to sit down over a long weekend and sketch out a few plot ideas that the writers could then use in the TV show or, less charitably, that he might have just decided to whip out a quick book and capitalize on the popularity of the show.

While I've not read a lot of his westerns, I've read every one of Leonard's crime novels and, strange at it might seem to say, this book did not feel to me like a real Elmore Leonard novel. Most of the characters who populate the book are drawn from the television show, but they seem thin, without the usual depth of Leonard's characters. Instead of seeming genuinely quirky, the way so many of Leonard's great characters do, these characters often feel like they're straining for quirky but falling short of liftoff. And perhaps most disappointing of all, the dialogue, which has always been one of the great entertaining strengths of an EL novel, here seems labored and not nearly as sharp as usual.

The book itself involves several subplots, all taking place in Kentucky and revolving around U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. In one, two dope-dealing Crowe brothers step up their game and hook up with a transplant nurse to steal human kidneys and sell them off. Another involves the efforts of a murderous female mining executive to clear the path for the destruction of a mountain allegedly full of coal, in spite of the environmental and human consequences of the action. In yet another, Raylan crosses paths with an attractive young college student who is attempting to make her fortune by playing high stakes poker.

Inevitably all of the women are bright and sexy and anxious to get it on with Raylan. Raylan, in turn, is quick on the draw and the body count in the book is fairly high. Upon completing the book, Leonard told the people involved with the TV show to strip out of it anything that they might like to use, and a couple of these plot lines did ultimately turn up in the show.

All of this is not to say that this is a bad book; in fact, it's a perfectly pleasant way to while away an evening, and if anyone else's name had been on the cover, one might put it down thinking it was a pretty damn good read. But when the name on the cover is Elmore Leonard, his long-time readers might have legitimately expected something a bit better. Readers who have not yet discovered Leonard's work might be better advised to begin with some of his earlier books like Get Shorty, or even Pronto, the book that first introduced Marshall Raylan Givens.

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