Raylan by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard’s last novel. Those aren’t easy words for me to write or for any fan of The Dickens of Detroit to accept. It seems like I’ve been reading the maestro’s work since birth when it was handed to me with a rattle—but a more accurate estimate would be my late teens when I was exposed to his early Western fiction.

Leonard (1925-2013) had switched fields early on when horses, gunslingers, and saloons no longer proved lucrative, and he became a creative force in the crime fiction genre that suited his machine-gun jazzy prose with down-and-out characters mired in stark realism. Mileposts in the last four decades include Get ShortyOut of Sight, Mr. Majestyk, Rum Punch, Glitz, Be Cool and Up in Honey’s Room to name a handful in a burgeoning portfolio. His fame ratcheted up yet another notch with the FX hit TV series Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant, based on Leonard’s character Raylan Givens from Pronto, Riding the Rap, and the short story “Fire in the Hole.” With Raylan, the author had come full circle with a modern cowboy who would fit in with the best from Leonard’s Westerns like “The Captives”, Valdez is Coming, and “Three-Ten to Yuma.”

Raylan finds Marshal Raylan Givens and his two partners Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson preparing to arrest a dealer named Angel Arenas. They find him in a bathtub packed in ice with his kidneys removed. Turns out the fellow miscreants he was preparing to do business with not only took his wacky tobacky without compensation, but decided to ransom his organs back to him for a hundred grand. Harlan County and surrounding areas—where the story takes place—have obviously fallen on tough times and trading in human body parts is a nice appendage to strengthen the bottom line. Angel worries his former partners will kill him for squealing, but he still points Raylan in the right direction to a family known as the Crowes. Familiar territory for Raylan who grew up in the area. Deep in the hollers of East Kentucky at Pervis Crowe’s grocery store, Leonard writes:

All these stores looked the same to Raylan, the same people coming in to buy necessities, then taking forever to spend ninety-nine cents on an angel food cake, some candy and Kool-Aid for their kids waiting, not saying a word.

Timothy Olyphant as the always cool Raylan Givens in Justified.

Raylan suspects Pervis Crowe’s two boys Coover and Dickie are involved with organ snatching, and his investigation leads him through a long and deliciously convoluted maze of backwoods depravity to a beauty with brains nicknamed Layla The Dragon Lady who contributes to the boondocks surgery and gets the drop on Raylan:

Saw him hesitate, start to turn his head and jabbed the needle hard through his coat and into his right arm. Saw his hand come out holding the Glock. Saw him look at her, his eyes turning dreamy, his knees giving up and he stumbled against the door, hat on, gun still in his hand, Raylan in his good-looking navy suit sliding to the floor.

You just know our lawman won’t be out for long and can take stock that Leonard will plug his protagonist into a few more close-fitting spaces to claw his way out. And that’s the joy in reading Elmore Leonard’s work: fresh approaches to dialogue and situations that could have been cliché in second-string hands. It’s like we are traipsing these worn trails for the first time. In a video interview, Leonard explains his technique which must be acknowledged for a big part of his success:

I’m not always sure where the scene is going. But when I start a scene I think: what’s it about, who’s in it, and what’s the purpose of the scene. Sometimes the purpose changes. Because I don’t know what the book or the book at that moment is about and then something good might happen.

If Raylan’s plot has a slight whiff of déjà vu, it's because the writers on Justified weaved this storyline into Season 3's “Thick as Mud” episode. The book actually feels like several novellas pieced together with familiar detours that fans of the TV show will recognize. No worries, my Leonard devotees, because it’s seamless from chapter to chapter, fitting comfortably like Raylan’s Stetson.

At the end of a CNN article on the author, shortly before Leonard died, the author mentions he had begun a new book and was already a chapter into it. Is it possible he got close to finishing, making it possibly … Elmore Leonard’s last novel? Still, not easy to accept. The only way I can think of finding any sort of solace is to go back to the very beginning and start reading them all over again. Wouldn’t you agree?

Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent noir Western collection, Further Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles.


  1. randal120

    Absolutely agree. This is the only Raylan book I’ve read. The two where he wasn’t the main chrarcter in Miami and the collection of stories with Fire In The Hole, the inspiration for Justified, I haven’t gotten to yet.

  2. David Cranmer

    Randy, I read Riding the Rap (as good as you would expect) but not the other two.

  3. George Otwori

    I’ve read Pronto, Riding the Rap, and the novella Fire in the Hole. I was really hoping for another Elmore Leonard novel to be adapted to a TV series. There was one in development at NBC a year or two ago and One made it to the pilot stage at the USA network but didn’t get picked up 2 years ago. Hopefully the final season of Justified goes out on top.

  4. David Cranmer

    [b]NeoGeo12[/b], Glad to hear Sam Elliott will be a part of the season six cast. Sould add an extra notch of excellence.

  5. kevin greenstreet

    Christ! I’ve read ALL his westerns and really like ALL of the movies that were made from his stories…and I Never read westerns! He will be sorely missed by his countless, adoring fans.

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