If you have ever come within waving distance of one of Elmore Leonard’s books, you should be watching “Justified,” which is currently in its third season on the FX network. And if you are aviewer of “Justified,” you should have read Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” (in the collection WHEN THE WOMEN COME OUT TO DANCE) and his novels PRONTO and RIDING THE RAP. They all feature Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. Marshal whose quirky personality and propensity for violence gets him transferred from South Florida to his native Hazard, Kentucky, where his associations past and present are both a blessing and a curse.
"Do you want to know what the best part of RAYLAN is? It’s reading the book and realizing that it contains some of Leonard’s best writing to date. And Leonard’s best, more often than not, is the best."
I will mention this once and proceed to the business at hand: the television series is wonderfully written, retaining all of the crackling dialogue, character development, and unexpected twists and turns one normally finds and expects in one of Leonard’s novels, and a dash or two of humor as well. The opening episode of season three even contained a plug for RAYLAN. Raylan was told, “If you were on a book cover, it would be a best seller.”
Which brings us to the newly published RAYLAN, the cover of which bears the photo of someone closely resembling the visage of Timothy Olyphant, the actor who plays Raylan Givens in “Justified.” Tie-ins between the novel and television series notwithstanding, please do not regard the book as a slavish adaptation of the program. Leonard could have phoned in such a thing, if he were so inclined, and it would have been entertaining. That is not what we have here. What Leonard has done is take a couple of plot points and characters from the second season of “Justified” and move them in other and different directions that are consistent with their television counterparts, so far as they go, yet significantly different from what occurred on film.
RAYLAN breaks down into roughly three intertwined novellas with Raylan kicking posterior, taking names and breaking hearts, and yes, showing off his exquisite marksmanship along the way. As has been true of Leonard’s work for the past several years, it is the women who are the most interesting characters, even as they each provide excellent foils to Raylan’s reputation as a polite and chivalrous rake.
The U.S. Marshal’s Office may be concerned with marijuana harvesting and trafficking in Raylan’s old Kentucky home, but the human organ business is booming. When he finds a marijuana dealer up to his neck in ice in a bathtub, minus both his kidneys, Raylan realizes he has a real problem. The embodiment of the problem is a nurse named Layla (“just like the song”), who has watched the donor/transplant procedure so many times she can do it herself, even if she isn’t a doctor. When Raylan finally tracks her down, he doesn’t realize that he is on her donor list as well. If he gets out of that one intact (or more or less so), he has to contend with a ruthless representative of a coal company named Carol Conlan, who not only is willing to order her bodyguard, Boyd Crowder, to shoot a reluctant landowner, but decides to do the job herself when Boyd hesitates.
Then there is a gorgeous card shark just barely out of college who walks away from jail after a raid on a high-stakes poker game. Raylan is on her trail, since she is a fugitive from justice. But who finally catches who? You will have to read the book to find out, but it’s a great chase that becomes a dangerous one when a nemesis of Raylan from south Florida comes calling to even the score.
Do you want to know what the best part of RAYLAN is? It’s reading the book and realizing that it contains some of Leonard’s best writing to date. And Leonard’s best, more often than not, is the best. Plus, one of the best closing paragraphs I have read in the past 12 months is here. No peeking, without reading the whole dang story.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 20, 2012