Monday, December 3, 2012

Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard

The best of Raylan, and much more
This collection of short stories by Elmore Leonard was first published in 2002 under the title When the Women Come Out to Dance. Due to the success of the TV series Justified, it has been re-released under the title Fire in the Hole, as it includes the story of that name on which the TV show is based. “Fire in the Hole” is the only one of the nine stories in this collection to feature Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, but it is the one of the longest stories in the book and clearly the best. Raylan was previously featured in Leonard’s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap. The former is much better than the latter, but “Fire in the Hole” tops them both. Raylan, who has served the U.S. Marshal Service in Miami for several years, is sent back to Harlan County, Kentucky, where he was born and raised, to take part in a task force aiming to take down Raylan’s former friend Boyd Crowder, a white supremacist who robs banks and blows up churches. This is an excellent ensemble piece populated with all manner of intriguing redneck, good ol’ boy, and latter-day cowboy lawman characters who exchange generous helpings of Leonard’s delightfully scripted hillbilly repartee. It is a riveting ride, alternately comical and suspenseful. The story will be familiar to those who watch Justified, as the first few episodes of season one were quite faithful to Leonard’s original narrative. Reading Leonard’s incarnation of the story is a joy and a revelation.

Miami-based Marshal Karen Cisco has also had her own TV show and movie (Out of Sight). She’s featured here in the story “Karen Makes Out,” in which she finally finds a man she thinks she can fall in love with, only to discover soon after that he’s a suspect in a series of bank robberies. I’m sure there are other recurring characters from Leonard’s works who appear in this collection, but I don’t know enough about his career to tell you which ones. He shows an incredibly wide range in these stories, covering the crime and western genres and beyond. Besides “Fire in the Hole,” the collection features another novella-length work, “Tenkiller.” When his fiancee dies, a former bull rider turned Hollywood stunt man makes a trip to his hometown of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, to check on his family’s pecan farm. Upon arrival he finds his house occupied by a family of criminal lowlife tenants who are up to no good and don’t want to leave. The book features two very strong stories in the western category. “Hurrah for Capt. Early” stars a black Spanish-American War veteran who receives a less than warm welcome from some small town racist cowhands. In “The Tonto Woman,” horse thief Ruben Vega stumbles upon a beautiful white woman living alone in the desert. When he discovers that she has Indian tattoos upon her face, he becomes greatly intrigued by her and decides to look into her mysterious past.

There are a couple of weaker entries. “Hanging Out at the Buena Vista,” chronicling the first date of two octogenarians in a retirement home, is a little too cutesy for its own good. “Sparks,” about an arson investigation, is not particularly exciting. These shorter pieces do little to drag down the collection as a whole, however, and the rest of the stories are captivatingly entertaining. Leonard really has a knack for creating fascinating, likeable characters, and his talent for penning snappy dialogue is unparalleled among contemporary crime writers. Despite the fact that my favorite Stetson-wearing U.S. Marshal is only featured in one story, I enjoyed this book more than either of the two prior volumes in the Raylan Givens series.

Stories in this collection:
Hanging Out at the Buena Vista
Chickasaw Charlie Hoke
When the Women Come Out to Dance
Fire in the Hole
Karen Makes Out
Hurrah for Capt. Early
The Tonto Woman

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