William Morrow: 261 pp., $26.99
A Charlie Hood Novel
T. Jefferson Parker
Dutton: 359 pp., $26.95
A watermelon picker, Vince Majestyk. A bail bondsman, Max Cherry. A bank robber, Jack Foley. A mean hombre, John Russell. A deadeye lawman, Bob Valdez. The villainous heroes and heroic villains of Elmore Leonard's imagination have come in countless forms — some, such as these, brought to life in motion pictures by Charles Bronson, Robert Forster, George Clooney, Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster, good good guy/bad guy portrayers all.
Ordered at gunpoint to identify my favorite Leonard do-badders of 40 books and beyond, I might need to score it a tie between Chili Palmer, a loan shark-turned-Hollywood player in "Get Shorty," and a newspaper reporter from its sequel, "Be Cool," who turns up in the last chapter, "Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times." (Only one of these gets the money and the girl in the end.)
A fast-rising star with a badge, however, is U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who has developed a cult following on FX's"Justified"and makes a return to the printed page as the titular figure of "Raylan," a new work of fiction from the 86-year-old Leonard and a real corker at that.
The new year is a happier one already for aficionados of America's top crime novelists. That is because, along with T. Jefferson Parker and a snarling, teeth-baring rip-snorter called "The Jaguar," a couple of our most creative writers are back and in good form. Their flawed but basically heroic lawmen — Charlie Hood being the Parker brand — are men of action, written with wit. A law gets bent here and there, but who cares?
Kidney-nappers are at the heart of "Raylan," a pair of Kentucky varmints who turn up unexpectedly at your door, disguised behind Barack and Michelle Obama masks, to drug you, drub you, relieve you of a vital organ — two, in some cases — and then rub-a-dub-dub you in a tub. Good ol' Stetson-topped Raylan, the coal miner's son who became a fed, ends up on the case.
A longtime admirer of Leonard, I must confess to not having loved his last book, "Djibouti," a modern pirate tale set off an African coast that demonstrated the author's versatility, if nothing else. "Raylan" is Leonard's best of the 21st century — good stuff from first page to last. That includes a surprising development when the kidney-nappers get their comeuppance at an early juncture and we move merrily and scarily along to marijuana growers, a corrupt coal-blooded woman and a 6-foot-6 bad dude dressed in drag (a .357 in his purse), not to mention an exotic dancer named Jackie Nevada whose stepdaddy Reno wanted to call her Sierra.
Rat-a-tat banter dominates the story. Leonard makes you LOL more than once with skewed and screwy Kentucky-isms from cops, cons and kinfolk, sitting on porches jabbering about rats they've shot and weed they've smoked. "He'd come home from drinkin with lovin on his mind," says one, droppin his punctuation much like a Cormac McCarthy conversationalist would, "and mama'd throw kerosene at him, set him afire." Dialogue doesn't come much more vivid than that.
Parker's specialty is anything but; the dialogue of his characters, tends to be less amusing and more ponderous than Leonard's, at times droning on in ways that have no crackle or snap. This partly accounts for why a lean, mean yarn like "The Jaguar" should huff and puff its way to 359 pages, when a hundred or so fewer might have nicely gotten the job done.
That said, let it be added that this is a crime writer as good as any when it comes to action, adventure and downright down-and-dirty deeds. No super-villain of a comparatively silly James Bond world is any more of an outsized megalomaniac than is the Mexican drug lord Benjamin Armenta, whose compound includes a menagerie of lions, leopards, tigers, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, plus monkeys, peacocks and a giant sloth. No subtlety here, just a good old-fashioned home for the criminally insane.
Small evil and big evil, in crime fiction there is room for both. Parker's heroine is snatched and held for ransom, but have no fear, she's a rock star in the band Erin and the Inmates, so naturally her evil captor demands that she write him a song. Erin gives as good as she gets in the snappy-patter department, even though the dastardly Armenta and his son do threaten to, oh, you know, skin her hide while they kill her. Ick.
Oh, does Parker keep it lurid. "Darkness closed and Hood looked at the logs scattered on the beach. They were long, straight and thick, stripped of branches, ready to be milled. Thirty of them, maybe forty .... then one of them opened its very long mouth and Hood saw the pale inside of it and the long teeth, and he heard the wheeze of a yawn and the hollow knock of the jaws closing. Juan wheeled at the sound and the dog barked. Crocodile, he whispered. More than one, Hood whispered back." This is one wild kingdom.
So much crime lit follows so many of the same procedural footsteps, time and again. Parker keeps it fresh, even if it requires a reporter and a leopard to go one-on-one for the drug lord's amusement. No reporter has ever met such a fate in any of Elmore Leonard's books that I know of, but it's not too late.
Downey is a former Times columnist.