‘A book of echoes, echoes that themselves reflect earlier Leonard novels’ – Raylan by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, perhaps more than any other author, has a cast of characters who return throughout his books. Jack Foley (played by George Clooney in the movie version of Out of Sight) reappears in Road Dogs and Karen Sisco (played by Jennifer Lopez in the same movie) reappears in Karen Makes Out. A character called Jack Ryan appeared in The Big Bounce, Unknown Man No.89 and Swag (which itself features a character who goes on to lead in Stick). Chilli Palmer (famously portrayed by John Travolta) appeared in both Get Shorty and its inferior sequel Be Cool. Carl Webster appeared in The Hot Kid, Up in Honey’s Room and Comfort to the Enemy. The Switch features characters from Jackie Brown. And I’ve not even mentioned Harry Arno. There are dozens of others. So all of the hoohah surrounding Leonard’s revival of his Raylan Givens character (Givens first appeared in the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap before resurfacing once more in the collection of novellas and stories When the Women Come Out to Dance – a book that also featured Karen Sisco once more – with a story called ‘Fire in the Hole’ that went on to form the basis for season one of Justified, the TV show that features the Raylan Givens character) is a little bewildering. As we have hopefully established, Leonard does this a lot. He also has about him what you might call a desire to please. Or a commercial mindset. Get Shorty did well – he wrote a sequel. Justified is getting a lot of critical acclaim – he writes a sequel. It isn’t a criticism, necessarily – it’s what you have to do to stay at the top of your game, which arguably Leonard does.

Raylan has a curious tripartite structure – with that element of recurrence outlined above binding things together. If you are a fan of Justified, what we have here might amount to three episodes. The novel opens with Givens on the trail of a recidivist known as Angel Arenas, who is found sans kidneys floating in an ice bath. Turns out some local drug dealers have hit upon a new scheme for generating cashola – they remove kidneys and then sell them back to the poor unfortunate sap for a major return. Only perhaps the drug dealers are saps themselves and the real brains are hiding in the shadows. Isn’t long, however, before they show their hand and Givens finds himself on the receiving end of a bit of kidney removals himself (or very nearly). The second part of the book concerns a shoot-out on the top of a mountain where a coal mining executive finds herself caught up with an aggrieved local and our old friend Boyd Crowder (familiar to viewers of the show and readers of ‘Fire in the Hole’) resurfaces as lackey. The elderly father of the two drug dealers from the first part of the story has a part to play here, as owner of the largest mountain in the vicinity, a commodity wanted by our hard-faced company executive. The third part of the story features a trio of female bank robbers (who leap from the page in a shower of cool) and their aggressive taskmaster, himself an old foe of Givens from way back (thus further consolidating what amounts to this being a book of echoes, echoes that themselves reflect earlier Leonard novels).  

As with Pelecanos, the dialogue zips and snaps (to the extent that possibly you may wonder as I do if people ‘on the street’ (man) actually speak the way Leonard and Pelecanos say or whether this a fictional idiom largely created and substantiated in the back and forth between the two authors) but Givens himself remains largely out of sight. He’s a curious hero and strangely moral for a writer whose strength lies in moral ambiguity (Givens is a white hatted cowboy – if Randolph Scott was alive, he’d be a shoo-in for the role) and his hollowness lends the novel a dull ring. Yet for all that, Raylan is still a rattling good yarn both in terms of what you would expect from a Leonard novel and also in terms of what can be done with a novel (this is not a straightforward beginning, middle and end sort of book – the structure is clever).

Now if only those good folks at Weidenfeld and Nicholson could do with the ‘Also by Elmore Leonard’ page what those good folks at Cape did with Philip Roth, bunching the novels together into recognisable groups – that would be great…

Any Cop?: Even at 86 years of age, Elmore Leonard continues to beat all the competition.  

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