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Onyx reviews: Devil Red by Joe R. Lansdale

Longtime, unlikely friends Hap Collins (straight/white) and Leonard Pine (black/gay) are now gainfully employed, more or less. Their job responsibilities—doing legwork for Marvin Hanson, an East Texas private investigator—are loosely defined. Mostly they poke around and stick their noses where they don't belong. "It's like being in a mystery novel with no detectives," Leonard astutely observes. Surprisingly, their approach often produces results, though there is usually violence involved in the process. This is nothing new for them—they've been beating people up (and getting beaten), shooting them (and getting shot), and stabbing them (and getting stabbed) for most of their lives, and through seven previous novels.

Leonard has really gotten into this detecting business, wearing a deerstalker hat that his friends all despise. For Hap, it's a job, far better than working at a rose farm, which is also one of Lansdale's past professions.

Their first case involves an elderly woman who was robbed and injured by three thugs. Local law enforcement isn't interested, so Hap and Leonard do what they do best: track down the culprits, get the woman's money back and dish out a little "eye for an eye" retribution to show the thieves the error of their ways. If they break enough bones, the miscreants won't come after them or the woman trying to get even. That's the theory, anyway.

In the aftermath of this donnybrook, Hap experiences a wave of existential angst. Why does he do the things he does and, more importantly, why does he enjoy doing them? He and Leonard often end up badly injured as a result of their exploits and yet they jump back into the fray time and time again. He even tells his girlfriend Brett that he's willing to discuss having a child with her, something that might force him to alter his ways. However, Brett knows that Hap will never change and that his lifestyle isn't compatible with raising a child. Brett knows whereof she speaks—she has a problem daughter who takes her away from the story from time to time, which gives Hap more opportunities to get into trouble.

Their next job for Marvin is a cold case: the two-year-old murder of an affluent woman's son and his girlfriend, whose bodies were found on a jogging trail. It looks as if they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there may be more to it than that, considering that both stood to inherit large amounts of money. The mother has already hired one detective, but that man just took her money without doing anything to earn it, believing there was nothing new to find out about the case.

Hap, Leonard and Marvin initially assume that the son was the intended target, but their new eyes turn up fresh details missed by the police and everyone else. The girlfriend had ties to a vampire cult and several of her friends died under mysterious circumstances. Hap notices a devil's head drawn in blood in crime scene photos and further investigation turns up the same drawing at other crime scenes across the country, leading them to believe that a serial or contract killer is at work.

Hap and Leonard have ample experience with cold-blooded mass murderers. Hap was recently wounded when their paths crossed with the beautiful but deadly Vanilla Ride. Once they start looking deeper into the case, someone who wants the trail to stay cold gets involved, and the results leave Hap in a worse emotional state than before. He loses his edge, which is a dangerous place to be for a man who is so often the object of violent attacks.

During an atypically cold (for East Texas) winter, one that even features snowfall, Hap and Leonard light out for Houston to chase down clues, accompanied by reporter Cason Statler, who previously appeared in the non-series book Leather Maiden. (Newspaper morgue denizen Jack Mercury from that novel also has a few cameo appearances.) The investigation hits a dead-end, though, leaving Hap and Leonard wondering where to turn next. Most writers, when faced with this situation, send in a man with a gun to kick-start the action. Lansdale sends in several men with numerous guns, not to mention knives and bombs. And one heavily armed woman. 

Though sprinkled with Lansdale's patented East Texas sense of humor, fisticuffs, raunchy dialog and ultra-violent, well-orchestrated shoot-outs, Devil Red is more serious than most of his other Hap and Leonard novels. Hap's emotional crisis takes the air out of the normal jaunty banter, and a shooting late in the book ups the ante even more. As the characters age, there's a chance—albeit slight—that the two men, closer and more devoted to each other than brothers, might actually be starting to grow up.

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