'Raylan' keeps up Western plots, thrills

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Author Elmore Leonard, who made his start writing Western novels, has just published his 45th novel, “Raylan.” The TV show “Justified” is based on the novel’s main character.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

After writing novels for more than 50 years, it might seem like Elmore Leonard would run out of steam or lose the spark that gave him a unique voice, but if his latest, “Raylan,” proves anything, it’s that Leonard can still defy expectations. Featuring Raylan Givens, a federal marshal antihero from other Leonard novels, as well as the FX TV show “Justified,” the novel is another modern western crime thriller full of noir-ish double crosses and sudden shoot-outs.

With his knack for writing sharp dialogue, biting humor and characters who only look out for themselves, Leonard remains one of the great writers of the can’t-put-it-down crime genre, featuring stories about criminals who you’d never want to run into in real life, but love to meet on the written page.

Givens is no exception, and although past experiences of his are alluded to, “Raylan” isn’t so much a sequel to “Riding the Rap” or “Pronto” as it is another adventure featuring the same character. Those who aren’t familiar with the other books won’t find themselves lost at all.

In this novel Givens goes looking for a criminal to arrest, but finds him naked in a bathtub full of ice with both his kidneys gone, instead of running from the law. If this sounds like straightforward mystery fare, where the novel is spent searching for the kidney thief, it’s not. Indeed, among the novel’s flaws is how aimless it is. The mystery is cleared up a few chapters into the book and by the halfway point, the narrative has already gone down a completely different pathway with new characters and new trouble for Givens to get in.

Givens is known in the Leonard universe for his catch phrase, which he’ll share with anybody who’ll listen: “If I have to pull my gun, I’ll shoot to kill.” And by the end of this book, he gives the reader no reason to question his commitment to the mantra. The body count is very high, which is a tad disappointing, since the bad guys — featuring an assortment of dumb criminals, femme fatales and exploitative millionaires — are often as compelling as the hero (and also have the best lines).

And though the story wanders and the characters are standard issue, the writing is confident and fun enough so that those seem like minor issues. The dialogue is a joy to read, with the characters really playing off of each other’s words and exchanging dry witticisms while contemplating whom to shoot next.

Perhaps also to ride on the coattails of the success of “Justified,” William Morrow Paperbacks released “Fire in the Hole,” a collection of Leonard’s short stories, earlier this month. For longtime Leonard fans, this collection is unnecessary since it’s a reprint, as opposed to “Raylan,” which is a new adventure.

“Fire in the Hole” was previously published under the title of “When the Women Come Out to Dance,” and is a fantastic collection that includes an exciting story featuring Givens that was adapted into the pilot of “Justified.” For those unfamiliar with Leonard’s work, it’s a perfect opportunity to discover an author who can do more in a few pages than most writers can do in a full-length novel, regardless of the title it’s published under.

“Raylan” is not Leonard’s best novel, nor is there one that is universally considered to be his “best.” Each new book features the same ingredients, but the chef cooks them together with such joy and imagination that the meal still feels fresh. And while one could criticize Leonard for not reinventing the wheels on the buggy that he first built several decades ago, it’s better to sit back and enjoy the ride.