Book Review: ‘Raylan’ by Elmore Leonard

When Graham Yost set about transplanting author Elmore Leonard’s character Raylan Givens from the printed page to TV screens, he had the writing team for Justified famously wear plastic wristbands emblazoned with the letters ‘WWED’ – ‘What Would Elmore Do?’ – in order to keep them true to the spirit of the character and Leonard’s writing style. It’s probably time for the crew to cut those bracelets off. Leonard’s third Raylan Givens novel, simply titled ‘Raylan’, is far from the writer’s strongest work and helps prove that Yost & Co. have a much better grasp on the character and the backwoods criminals of Harlan, Kentucky than Elmore himself does.

Reading ‘Raylan’ is a strange experience if you’re up to date with the show. After seeing his character portrayed so wonderfully by Timothy Olyphant in Justified, Leonard was apparently inspired to write another novel in the series. He then gave the show’s writers an early draft of the book and told them to mine it for parts if they liked. They did, the book’s plot and characters serving as inspiration for significant chunks of the series’ second and third seasons. As a result, reading ‘Raylan’ (which gets its release after those episodes have aired) makes the book feel like Elmore’s alternate reality ‘What if?’ version of Justified: Season Two.

The book plays out like three episodes of the show as Raylan, a former Florida Marshal forced to transfer to his rural hometown of Harlan County after roping a Miami gun thug into a showdown and shooting him dead, tackles a trio of unrelated cases. A pair of kidney thieves are stealing organs and ransoming them back to their victims, Raylan gets tied up with the corporate spokeswoman for a major coal company looking to gut Harlan’s resources after a townsperson with a grudge winds up murdered, and a fugitive college girl with a knack for gambling appears to be involved in a string of bank robberies pulled off by a trio of young, beautiful women.

Major moments and chunks of dialogue from the TV series dovetail through the book but events and characters then veer far from the events of the show, their fates often radically different. Dim-witted criminal siblings Dickie and Coover figure prominently in the first third of the book, but they’re transplanted from the Bennetts onto the Crowe family in Leonard’s story. Their father Pervis Crowe now the head of Harlan’s hillbilly weed empire in place of the series’ menacing matriarch Mags Bennett, while Loretta, who was the driving force behind much of the show’s second season, is only around for a few pages. Raylan is forced to serve as bodyguard for scheming coal company spokeswoman Carol, but the mining dispute unfolds differently and isn’t as major a plotline as in the show. It all leads to a bizarre sense of deja-vu, but the ways in which the series diverge from the book’s story only serves to highlight that Justified’s writers have managed to beat Leonard at his own game.

Leonard has a particular writing style that’s an acquired taste, if you’re not familiar with it. Tossing grammar aside with wild abandon, his stories are peppered with broken sentences, light on grammar and punctuation and heavy on slang and sharp dialogue. It’s a casual, colloquial style that’s as perfect a fit for the rural underworld and southern drawls of Kentucky as any, but that dialogue-heavy, description-free style help contribute to the fact that Raylan and Harlan lack the rich texture that they have on the show. Without description to rely on, Raylan Givens is much less the captivating, cooler-than-a-cryogenically-frozen-eskimo character he is when channeled through Timothy Olyphant. Leonard doesn’t have quite the same finely-tuned grip on his own character and feels the need to have him shoot his mouth off to fill pages, sometimes making the character feel more like a mouthy, clichéd tough guy than the nuanced badass he is on the show.

Perhaps its a little unfair to square the book up against a series which has 20-something hour-long episodes a year in which to develop its story, but Leonard’s very episodic pacing and structure make it almost impossible not to. And whether you’re a die-hard fan of the show or only know Raylan from Leonard’s novels, the ‘three separate cases’ structure doesn’t lend itself to the most satisfying package, primarily because the second and third vignettes end so anticlimactically. Without fail, every chunk of plot or character Yost and co. borrow from ‘Raylan’ is moulded into something far greater on the show than in the source material.

‘Raylan’s’ coal mining plot, a thinly-plotted story which ends as limply as a wet noodle, on the show became the backdrop for an intense, gripping Winter’s Bone-inspired backwoods crime saga shockingly rich in character, story and sense of place. The book’s throwaway characters like Loretta McCready or Dickie Bennett/Crowe (who, in the novel, is little more than a hick defined largely by his affectation of wearing big-collared shirts and collecting Elvis memorabilia) become two of the strongest, most captivating the series has, while those created by the show (like country crime lord Mags Bennett) manage to be greater characters than any in Leonard’s novel by a wide margin. Even the stronger, more satisfying parts of the book, like the opening kidney-thieving story, become the inspiration for far richer, deeper material on the show, as Yost and his team transformed a solid little crime romp into a fantastic vehicle for series scene-stealer Dewey Crowe and one of the sharpest, funniest hours of television this year.

‘Raylan’ is by no means a bad book and certainly has its moments. There’s a reason the show took the bare inspiration and whole chunks of dialogue from the novel – though the follow-through on the trio of vignettes isn’t always the strongest, there’s the seeds of great little crime stories dotted throughout, and Leonard’s flair for breezy, crackerjack dialogue is still unsurpassed by most in the crime fiction world. But while the opening story works incredibly well, the pacing and character soon go askew and the scattered narrative doesn’t make for the most satisfying package.

It’s punchy pulp peppered with dynamite dialogue, but ‘Raylan’ often feels more like Leonard had a few vague ideas for episodes of the show and half-heatedly stretched them out into a full-length book. The amount of overlap between the book’s events and characters and those that pop up in seasons two and three of the TV series makes ‘Raylan’ an interesting curio for fans of the show, but it’s pretty telling that the series takes the world of Raylan Givens and Harlan, Kentucky and translates it into a meatier, more substantial and satisfying work of fiction than Leonard manages.


‘Raylan’ by Elmore Leonard is out now in hardback and ebook format.
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