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Elmore Leonard – Raylan

Author: Elmore Leonard

Title: Raylan

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Hardback: 263 pages

ISBN: 978-0-297-86753-1

Price: £18.99

Publication Date: 16/02/2012


It’s not often that a novel can use the first name of its principal protagonist for its title, but in the case of Elmore Leonard’s US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens normal rules don’t apply. From his first appearance in Pronto [1993], to his next outing in Riding the Rap [1995], before taking centre stage in the 2002 short story ‘Fire in the Hole’ – on which the television series, Justified, was based – Raylan has always been ineffably cool.

Yes, in Pronto and Riding the Rap he was somewhat of a hick, but in ‘Fire in the Hole’ and Raylan he has matured into a character that holds the reader’s attention. Maybe it is his attire – cowboy boots and hat – and his Southern good manners. Or the fact that he is a throwback to a bygone age – a quick-draw lawman. Or just that he gets to say some wonderfully laconic lines – at one point in Raylan he describes Ava Crowder as looking like “a double-dip ice-cream cone in that yella dress.”

The new novel involves three loosely connected stories involving our eponymous protagonist, lots of guns and a disparate collection of villainous men and femme fatales in Harlan County, Kentucky, where feuding backwoods families, pot farmers and a heavy-handed mining company vie for supremacy. In the first arc, Raylan tracks a hospital transplant nurse who runs her own criminal enterprise – seducing, drugging and removing men’s kidneys, before selling them for ten thousand dollars apiece. Then there’s the female Vice President of a Kentucky mining company, intent on getting control of the land held by the local people – either by honeyed words and the lure of money, or with a Glock. And, in the third and final story, Raylan gets involved with Jackie Nevada – a college girl and high-stakes poker player who is also a minor fugitive. And this leads him to pursue a trio of stoned strippers who rob banks…

If you are a fan of the television series – as I am – then you will no doubt have quickly realised that elements of the novel have appeared in the television show. This is especially true of the second, mining plotline – which was a major theme in the second season of Justified [and the first arc, involving organ-trafficking is supposed to be a theme in the forthcoming third season].

Inevitably, this leads to a slightly schizophrenic reading experience if you are, like me, familiar with both Leonard’s oeuvre and Justified. Because a number of elements of Raylan are both completely the same as the television show, but also radically different. The reason, I discovered, that this almost meta-quality exists between the novel and the television show, where the two intertwine and diverge, is down to the vagaries of scheduling in the book publishing world [Leonard sent an early draft of Raylan to the show’s producer before the second season and said that he could mine – pun completely intended – the manuscript for plot ideas for the show!].

If I had one negative about the novel, then it would be that the three plot arcs are very loosely connected – at times almost feeling like they were three different episodes from the television show – and might have worked better as three separate novellas, with Raylan as the glue binding them together.

But, in a way, the disparate nature of the plot becomes just another quirky way in which Leonard avoids being too caught up in the rules and constraints of crime fiction. The focus is, instead, upon Leonard’s trademark prose – which often lets go of ‘proper usage and grammar’ – snappy dialogue, rat-a-tat narrative and the phalanx of fascinating characters that always frequent his works.

Filled with brilliant scenes – the one in which Raylan wakes up, groggy, drugged and naked in a bathtub but for his cowboy boots, as his attackers prepare to remove his kidneys,was a particular favourite of mine – Raylan is a fast-paced, absorbing read, from one of the doyens of the genre.
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