Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Raylan: A Novel by Elmore Leonard

An odd hybrid of Justified and Leonard’s previous novels
Elmore Leonard first introduced readers to Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the 1993 novel Pronto, then quickly followed it up with Riding the Rap, and later delved deeper into the character’s origins in the 2001 short story “Fire in the Hole.” A lot has happened to Raylan since then, of course. He now has his own television series, Justified on FX. Leonard’s latest novel, simply entitled Raylan, although published in 2012, was written before the second season of the TV show. While the first season of Justified was pretty faithful to “Fire in the Hole,” they did depart from Leonard’s writings in many instances, creating new characters and plot lines. With this new novel, Leonard now has the opportunity to reciprocate by borrowing ideas from the show. In turn, the writers of the show have heavily mined this novel’s characters and plot for the second, third, and fourth seasons of Justified, though altering them liberally. The result is a strange correspondence between Leonard’s writings and the TV show. Though often identical, at times they are like parallel universes.

When Raylan and fellow marshal Rachel Brooks set out to apprehend a drug dealer named Angel Arenas, they find him in a bath tub full of ice with his kidneys removed. The next day, the mysterious organ thief tries to sell Angel’s kidneys right back to him. Raylan figures Angel’s associates the Crowes are involved in the scheme. This marijuana dealing family consists of patriarch Pervis Crowe and his dim-witted sons Coover and Dickie. Fans of Justified will recognize these characters as Coover and Dickie Bennett. Their father Pervis was replaced by mama Mags Bennett, one of the more unforgettable characters in the show’s run. This is just one instance of how the two narratives differ. In Leonard’s world, to offer another example, Raylan has kids, though they are only mentioned and never seen.

Leonard is known for his snappy, intelligent dialogue, and he plays to his strength here. The book is at least 90% dialogue, and reads very much like a screenplay. In fact, it could have benefited from less talk and more action. The brief gunfights are hardly suspenseful, as the characters can barely shut up long enough to draw their weapons. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Raylan is that it’s not really a novel, but rather a collection of three episodes. After the kidney thief story line is resolved in the first hundred pages, Leonard just moves on to another matter entirely. There’s little continuity from beginning to end, and thus none of the complex overall structure that one expects from a book subtitled “A Novel”. Fans of Leonard’s writing who don’t watch Justified might find themselves a little lost in this book. Viewers of the show seem to be his intended audience. On the other hand, Justified enthusiasts may find the book too light and fluffy for their tastes. Leonard softens many of the harder, grittier edges of his story in favor of a more comedic approach. Toward the end of the book there are a couple of near slapstick scenes which are too over-the-top to be believable.

Ultimately, the character of Raylan Givens has been molded and shaped by actor Timothy Olyphant to the point where it’s not wholly Leonard’s creation anymore. Although he incorporates elements from Justified in this book, it only sporadically captures the spirit of the show. When judged solely on its merits as a Leonard novel, it’s good but nothing spectacular. “Fire in the Hole” is still the best Raylan story Leonard has ever written.

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