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Book Review: "Raylan"

Miles Winston |
November 16, 2011 | 4:06 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter


Leonard's latest crime novel, "Raylan" (Amazon.com).
Leonard's latest crime novel, "Raylan" (Amazon.com).

Now's here's a place you'd like to live: Harlan County, Kentucky. A world, by Elmore Leonard's account in his latest, "Raylan," where every woman is as firearm-savvy as she is promiscuous, with every man chasing their tail, and everybody in general a half-buzzed, half-criminal, half-witty comic.

So from the title, we have our character: Raylan Givens, U.S. Marshal, famous perhaps for his on-camera duties on the FX series "Justified." He is a headstrong, hard-nosed, dangerous, cunning guy who turned out on the proper side of the law. He is the sort of law enforcement guy you would like to have rassling the criminals in your locale, or it's fine if you are just reading about him. Because he lives a thrill, much like your average gun-slinging hero.

In fact, very much like your average gun-slinging hero. He is clever with his weapons and his words, he is a very attractive man to the ladies, etc. He fits well in his environment and interacts with it in an engaging manner. But the author crafts a story that brings this stud figure, a bit marbled, to new life. Raylan is the hero, after all — you must forgive his inability to be imperfect.

The author works his characters too well. They are lively and flamboyant, all too cool or otherwise contrived to be real, so cool that the true "character" element in them suffers a little. The witty dialogue that drives this novel often comes out sounding a bit playwritten and stilted, half-baked in plastic molds, or shot through a magic-making formula. Bear in mind that novels aren't two-part chorales, or a four-part, for that matter. So our characters become a bit like contestants in a pageant, looking pretty but somewhat transparent through cute expressions and the "world peace" speech. In fulfilling their roles so dutifully, I am left rather entranced at the movement of these little puppets' strings that draw their arms and their tongues. The trance was short-lived.

Where this novel captures the reader is in the plot, and in its use of environment. The plot carries itself with force, at times dizzying with its skips. What the back cover suggests (plots to steal kidneys, marijuana farming) only begins the story, and when you believe that these 263 pages will offer nothing more, it seems everybody's dead before the halfway mark. Suddenly the author is talking about a coal mining company and a dirty fishpond, and later on we get to a girl paying her way through college playing poker, not to be confused with a look-alike that robs banks. Throughout, however, the focus remains on the character, on Raylan. The author does not get carried away by his imagination; rather, he tells his story with control and does not neglect his characters.

These were characters I wanted to get to know, this was a novel I was ready to wholly immerse myself in. There was an exciting story, a thrilling environment that challenged them — the grand majesty of the Appalachians, the mechanic rampages of the brutal coal industry, fields of marijuana — and there were our characters, on stage singing Christmas carols, it seems. Well it's about that time of year.

Reach Miles here.

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