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Onyx reviews: Raylan by Elmore Leonard

U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens appeared previously in the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, as well as in the short story "Fire in the Hole." The latter is the basis for the TV series Justified, where Raylan Givens is the main character. While stationed in Miami, Givens famously gave a man 24 hours to get out of town. When he found the man eating lunch the next day, Raylan ended up killing him, though the other man went for his gun first. Drawing against Raylan Givens is never a good idea. Though he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting, he was transferred to Kentucky, which everyone in the Marshals Service considers a demotion. For Raylan, it's a trip back home. Raylan worked in the mines before becoming a lawman.

For three seasons on FX, Timothy Olyphant has brought Marshal Raylan Givens to life. He is a good lawman who plays fast and loose with the rules and never hesitates to draw his weapon when he needs to—or when he thinks he might need to. He has complicated relationships with the people of Harlan County, Kentucky because he knows most of their secrets, having grown among them and their kin. He also has complicated relationships with several women in the area.

However, readers of Raylan will have to put aside some of what they think they know about the man because this book is based on Elmore Leonard's creation and not the TV show. In some ways, it's like entering a parallel universe where many of the details are the same but enough are not so as to be disorienting. Complicating matters is the fact that some of the stories Leonard chooses to tell in Raylan have analogs on the TV show.

Raylan's boss, Art, is here, as are his colleagues Tim and Rachel. No mention is made of Raylan's father. Mags Bennett and her three "tads" were the focus of a recent season of the show. Dickie and Coover appear in this book, but they don't have another brother (especially not one smart enough to be a cop), and their last name is Crowe, not Bennett. The head of the family is their father, Pervis. No Mags, more the shame.

Raylan is composed of a number of cases that require Marshal Givens' attention. In the first, somebody is knocking people out and stealing their kidneys, which they immediately ransom back to their victims. It sounds like an urban legend, but it gets messy when two henchmen think they've seen the procedure often enough to take a stab at it without the supervision of the transplant nurse running the scheme.

Carol Conlan, the representative of a mining company interested in plundering the mountaintops of Harlan County for their coal, requests Raylan as her bodyguard while she holds town meetings to convince the locals to come over to her way of thinking. This storyline will be familiar to fans of Justified, though without Mags Bennett and Raylan's father in the mix, the plot goes in a different direction. Carol has Boyd Crowder in her back pocket, but the man who is the yang to Raylan's yin in the TV show is a pale shadow of himself in the book. Some of the best scenes on Justified involve the two men, who have mutual respect though frequently working at cross purposes. None of Boyd's strength of character and bravado show through in this book, and he is overshadowed by the ruthless woman.

In fact, women committing crimes is one of Raylan's themes. In addition to the rogue transplant nurse and Ms Conlan, there is a trio of women committing bizarre bank robberies. They flounce into the banks as if on a whim and ask for specific amounts of money. Their sheer bravado and the fact that they are attractive means their run of good luck could last for a while. Added to the mix of powerful women is a professional poker player wanted on a fugitive warrant who comes to Raylan's attention. 

Absent for the most part, though, are the familiar women of Justified: his ex-wife Winona and Ava Crowder. In the book, Winona, a court reporter, has a few scenes during the town meetings, where she is recording the sessions. She and Raylan joust verbally, but they have none of the dynamic people familiar with the show will expect. Even more disappointing is Ava Crowder, who is living with Boyd, her late husband's brother, as brother and sister. Though she has one flirtatious scene with Raylan, she's window dressing instead of the strong, willful presence she is on the show.

Perhaps it's unfair to judge a novel based on its departure from the TV show that has made its title character famous. Still, it's Timothy Olyphant who appears on the book's cover, so the publisher is addressing that audience directly. Leaving the show aside, the novel is filled with Leonard's stock and trade: well-drawn characters and dialog sharp enough to slice tomatoes. He has such a facility with terse dialog that it is almost overdone. Even the dumbest characters are capable of impressive repartee. Leonard has also acquired a strange habit of late. He interrupts scenes and flashes forward so that two characters can relate what happened in retrospect. It's almost as if he favors his skill with dialog over his ability to write narrative, and it leads to scenes where two people remind each other of events that transpired only an hour or two earlier. It feels unnatural that people would discuss such things in the detail required to get them across to readers. Their editorial comments on events don't add enough to justify skipping the original narrative.

Raylan is a breezy read that is funny at times and deadly at others. It's hard to go wrong with Elmore Leonard. Just remember that the TV show was based on his creations and not the other way around.


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