Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Straight Talk: Elmore Leonard's Raylan

One of author Elmore Leonard's great gifts, as previously demonstrated in Maximum Bob and Get Shorty, is his unique ability to shape his characters specifically through their dialogue. In Raylan (HarperCollins, 2012), Leonard’s 30th novel, the story of a sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall, the author continues his talk-driven style in fine fashion. Raylan Givens, is the lead character in the FX series, Justified, that just ended its third season. (The series is based on the characters in Leonard’s short story, "Fire In The Hole," published in 2001. The first episode of the series is an adaptation of that story.) Justified stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, whose claim to fame was as the sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood, the superb, but short-lived HBO series. (Interesting how he went from a law enforcer in one era to a U.S. Marshall in the modern era)

The character of Raylan Givens often reads like the John Wayne of old: a man with grit and a moral code. For Leonard, whose characters are often flawed, that cliché isn’t celebrated. Givens is good, but he drinks too much, often gets into fights that he loses, and is often a little too flexible with the law. He wears a cowboy hat at all times, even though it’s not part of the uniform, and fancies himself a ladies' man. But most of all, he considers his actions in the light of criminal activity as “justified.” And the way Leonard shapes his stories the reader can’t help but agree. It’s Given’s strong moral code that engages you. Givens is a Marshall, after all, whose job is to collect felons on the lam and bring them to jail. It’s a job he does well even if he bends the rules from time-to-time.

Leonard’s particular genius is for shaping and stylizing the language of the characters. In Raylan, a strong southern drawl lifts remarkably from the page as you read. You can “hear” the sounds in your head, as if it were music, by the way Leonard structures the sentences complete with bad grammar and phonetic spelling. He’s also a master of colloquial speech. That is part of the success of Raylan. Even if you’ve never been to Kentucky, you feel the spirit of it. Leonard's strengths creating moral ambiguousness also comes from his uncanny ability to write his criminals with the same weight as his heroes. In other words, the bad guys get equal time; we learn about their interests and most importantly, their logic when it comes to committing crimes. We know where they live, the music they like and even their favourite foods. These are characters who believe in what they do and Leonard isn’t afraid to make them likable.

Elmore Leonard and Timothy Olyphant
I’ve read seven books by Elmore Leonard over the years and this one has everything I’ve come to expect from the author: a clean, tightly written story with humorous characters and the element of surprise. Since I generally like mysteries with a literary sense (a la Raymond Chandler), I consider Elmore Leonard in the same company. Chandler and Ross MacDonald have always provided chief detectives or law enforcement officers who are sad and quietly pathetic. But Raylan Givens has all the good and bad habits required to be a steady, serial character. He’s sharp, witty and bold and the kind of work he does lends itself smoothly to different situations and story lines.

Raylan was released last January to coincide with the third season of the TV series, but it wasn’t just to exploit the show’s success. Leonard’s participation on Justified is substantial: he’s listed as an executive producer and he has co-written a few episodes. He was inspired by the series and its dedication to getting his characters “right.” Consequently, Leonard decided to write a full-length novel that goes further than the short story of 2001. My colleague, Mark Clamen reviewed the first season of the TV series by describing it this way, “Justified never ceased to be entirely compelling, consistently entertaining, and just plain fun.” Alas, I can’t draw the same conclusion about the book, Raylan. Entertaining, yes; compelling, no. Leonard’s most compelling book was 52-Pick Up (1986) about a man caught up in the serious business of blackmail with deadly results. It was a dark, action-packed story, but not full of the quirky characters we’ve come to read in Leonard’s later work and in film adaptations such as Get Shorty.

Justified best captures the idiosyncrasies of the people in the book because the show had multiple writers looking to keep the spirit of Leonard present in the work. Which is why the book offers us some pretty bizarre people doing unusual crimes, but the characters who all appear in the second season of the TV show aren’t as fleshed as I'd like. Nevertheless, the series does win out when it comes to higher dramatic tension.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. Thanks, Mr. Corcelli, for this cogent review of RAYLAN. We "Justified" fans are impatient to see the return of Timothy Olyphant et al. As for the BOOK? WHO has time to read an entire book these days, I wonder? ;-)

  2. The reviewer has read seven Leonard books? Try getting your total up to 15 to 20 before deeming yourself qualified to comment on the latest one.

  3. I agree about the book, Raylan. Needed polish, but still a better book than most of the same ilk. Love Mr. Leonard's work. Glad to see him getting this award in November. I saw a movie last week and was surprised to see that it was written by him. He can do anything.