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Monday, January 23, 2012

San Francisco Chronicle Review of Raylan

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San Francisco Chronicle
Alan Cheuse

I haven’t seen “Justified” on FX, but you don’t have to have seen it either to enjoy the low-key dramatic splendors of Elmore Leonard’s new novel, “Raylan.”

It focuses on the character of U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (who appeared in two previous Leonard novels on which that television series is based). In fact, you don’t have to watch any TV at all. “Raylan” is really a vivid movie-like experience. The book turns into a handheld device that delivers word-filled pages, speeding the story along in your mind without any help from director, actors, cameramen, extras, set decorators and costumers. Nobody but you and the words on the page, and you’re off and running. Or dreaming, as John Gardner used to put it, while awake.

Perhaps if he had spent a writing lifetime focusing on circus performers or bankers or chefs or naval chiefs or teachers or firefighters, Leonard would have produced a different variety of prose, something not so silky and subtle and yet so full of speed as what he has given to us over the years. I don’t know. As it happens, he chose the underworld and the world just above it - the world of law - as his main territory. And like the lawmen and some of the bad men in Leonard’s early Westerns, and like many of the main actors in many of Leonard’s crime novels set in and around Detroit and Miami, Raylan Givens is quick to draw - if drawn upon - and shoots to kill.

You can say the same thing about his creator. With a practiced ease and the craft of more than half a century of novelistic composition, Leonard works like the Picasso of crime fiction, deftly sketching in his characters by means of carefully shaped dialogue and keenly detailed physical action with such seemingly offhand skill that the novels often overtake the reader with their straightforward momentum and their incisive psychology of those who live beneath and outside the law. Reading his pages is like filling up on chocolates that are good for you.

In this new novel, for instance, three main sequences flow smoothly one into the other - Raylan, having killed a suspect in Florida and now posted back to his home turf of Kentucky, goes after the brainless sons of a vastly successful marijuana farmer who have been stealing kidneys from hapless victims. (Says Raylan of this situation: “What I don’t see, what these pot growers are doing yanking out people’s kidneys. They aren’t making it sellin weed? I’ve heard a whole cadaver, selling parts of it at a time? Will go for a hundred grand. But you make more you sell enough weed, and it isn’t near as messy as dealin kidneys.”)

Our sure-thinking, dead-shot deputy bests the country boys, a former stable hand posing as an African, and a scalpel-toting surgical nurse. This segues into cases in which a mining company employee blows away a neighbor with a complaint, and a widowed granny turns into a shotgun-toting killer.

Our valiant lawman then gallantly takes on the care of a spunky college girl turned champion poker player while working a case that involves a murderous club-owning thug who sends his young strippers out to rob banks in exchange for drugs.

The kidney-theft caper sets a darkly comic tone, and the mining murder does not add much cheer to these pages, though, as in the final section, the alacrity and buoyancy of Leonard’s narrative, which rushes along fueled by the dramatic edge of his brilliant dialogue and brings every bad guy (and girl) to justice, makes a reader want to stand up and shout: “Mission accomplished!”

Nothing is pure. Leonard still has to use words when he writes for us. But “Raylan” is as close as it gets to creating the complete illusion of unmediated entertainment on the page.

Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio. E-mail comments to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/01/20/RVUF1MQ733.DTL#ixzz1kI1Gzhgj

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