DEVIL RED, Joe R. Lansdale's latest offering, is a Hap & Leonard novel. If you've read more than a few words strung together by Lansdale in any given context, you're going to pick up a book with his name on the cover, whether it features those two characters or not. But the announcement of a new installment in the series is cause to rejoice, even as he throws a couple of change-ups our way, one of which is somewhat hair-raising.
The beginning of the book finds the oddly matched but well-met protagonists going about their usual business of righting wrongs in their unique and memorable style. In this particular instance, a pair of thugs rob and injure an elderly woman and are paid back in excess of their transgression, in hopes that the punishment administered will be taken as a lesson learned. Hap, though, is having second thoughts about what they do and how they do it. When Marvin, their friend and erstwhile boss, sends them out to investigate a cold double-murder case on behalf of the mother of one of the victims, Leonard is all set, even purchasing and wearing a deer hunter's hat for the occasion, acquired as the result of the sudden onset of a Sherlock Holmes addiction. Hap, on the other hand, finds that his heart isn't in it.
It turns out that one of the victims had ties to a vampire cult. Even worse, a close examination of the crime scene photos reveal a red devil's head painted on the side of the tree near the victims' bodies. Some investigation and detective work finds that a similar symbol has been found at the scenes of a number of unsolved murders across the country. Hap, already maintaining the most tenuous of grasps on his sanity, loses it when he stumbles onto the scene of the grisly murder of a potential witness. Leonard is there to help bring him back, as is Brett, his lady love, but Hap may have lost his killing edge.
In the bad company the boys keep, and the dirty deeds they do, such a loss could have fatal consequences. And, indeed, everything may change forever when a tragic and violent occurrence puts Hap on a trail of revenge with an unexpected ally from his past, one who is tied to the investigation in a very unexpected way. Before the smoke clears and the blood dries, Hap will be challenged on a number of levels as he never has been before, for good or ill.
DEVIL RED marks a tipping point for the series. While Lansdale does not eschew his trademark style points --- sharp dialogue, grim humor, colorful turns of phrase (you'll want to keep a notebook handy), and sudden, graphic violence --- there is a more serious edge to this book than you are likely to find in the other installments. This makes DEVIL RED neither better nor worse than its companion volumes, though Lansdale, for my money, is incapable of writing badly. It is simply a bit different. And very, very good.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011