There's a streak of perversity in Elmore Leonard, contemporary American fiction's master of dialogue, choosing the laconic cowboy type as a hero for his crime fiction. True, Leonard started out writing westerns, but the characters who populate his crime stories are talkers, some profane, some funny, some sarcastic, many all at once. But they are talkers.
Raylan Givens, the U.S. marshal who first appeared in Leonard's short story "Fire in the Hole" and has since become the hero of the FX series Justified, occupies the center of Leonard's Raylan, essentially a couple of long short stories woven loosely into a novel. Leonard's Raylan is a bit more upfront about his appetites than he is in Timothy Olyphant's wittily underplayed portrayal of the character in the series. He's still no chatterbox, though.
Both Raylan and Justified are contemporary westerns, moving the conventions of horse opera to present-day Kentucky. Oxycontin ("hillbilly heroin," as it's called in one episode) has supplemented moonshine, but much else is still the same. Raylan is the upright, no-nonsense lawman, and the villains he faces (many of them) are the type of inbred bad news who caused problems for decent, law-abiding folks in pictures like My Darling Clementine, Man of the West, and Ride the High Country. Raylan, like every great western hero, is burdened by his own reputation, which in his case stems from the time he gave a Miami drug kingpin twenty-four hours to get out of town (and blew the bastard away when he didn't). That gets Raylan reassigned to the hometown he wanted to escape, back in the same territory with his scheming con man daddy, his ex-wife, and his high school crush, who's just taken permanent revenge on her abusive husband.
Leonard's novels have inspired some fine adaptations, both in movies (Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, the relatively unseen Killshot) and on TV (the late, lamented Karen Cisco). Justified may be the best anyone has done at capturing the novelist's mordant, flippant tone. The various brands of mayhem that have turned up on the show are greeted by victims and lawmen alike with a "Well, whadd're you gonna do?" shrug. As Raylan, Olyphant is what you might have seen if the young Gary Cooper had been a put-on artist. The marshal is a hot pistol who's had to learn to play it cool. His ten-gallon hat might be the cork that keeps his inner volcano from blowing. Much of the time Olyphant, who moves through each episode in lean, clean strides, seems to be privately amused by the corruption of the fools who mess with him.
As a novel, Raylan is a casual endeavor, Leonard having fun with a character who's gained a measure of popularity. It's also a pisser. Leonard has come up with some doozies for the plot: the dimwit sons of a backwoods pot grower joining in a scheme to swipe kidneys and then ransom them back for replacement in the victims' bodies; a female coal company exec who, annoyed with a local's complaints about the pollution caused by strip mining, picks up a rifle and shoots the old man. The violence here has the swift kick of a good, mean joke. It makes you wince and grin at the same time.
Raylan's a straight arrow, but he's not a stick-in-the-mud. He's not too upright to consider a dalliance with the transplant nurse who's masterminding the kidney-swiping scheme or that coal company exec, who hires him as her bodyguard. (His common sense wins out by a hair over his libido.) The compressed form of the stories is perfect for a writer who long ago learned to pare away every extraneous word.
There's another reason Leonard's creation and the TV show it spawned have clicked. A hero who sees the irony in being the tall, true man of the law and is anyway may be the only kind of traditional hero we can believe in now. In recent years, "cowboy" has come to be an epithet denoting ill-advised American military adventuring. But what's denigrated as cowboy behavior is almost always more appropriate to the recklessness of the outlaw that the westerner faces. Raylan keeps his own counsel, considers the consequences before he acts, tells those who oppose him what the consequences are, uses violence when it's called for but never revels in it and would just as soon avoid it. Among the other pleasures Leonard and his Kentucky lawman provide, they've restored the cowboy's good name.
Charles Taylor has written for numerous publications, includingSalon, The Boston Phoenix, and The New York Times Book Review.
Reviewer: Charles Taylor