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Bad Chili
Hap & Leonard #4
by Joe R. Lansdale
Vintage, $14.00, 304pp
Published: May 2009

I'm four books in to Joe Lansdale's 'Hap and Leonard' series, which means that I'm finally in new territory because the TV show only adapted the first three.

Well, mostly, because none of those books were adapted verbatim, and a few little details here feel very familiar because they made it into the show ahead of schedule, such as Leonard peeing on someone's head. It shows up at the beginning of this book in very different circumstances. The general thrust of the story is new, though, and I enjoyed it just as much when I had no idea where anything was going to go.

Some things are a given and one of them is that Leonard's surely going to find himself in trouble, regardless of whether it's his fault or not, and that peeing on someone's head incident certainly was. The rest mostly isn't, as it's fallout from decisions made by his ex-boyfriend, Raul. Yes, Raul has left Leonard, perhaps for good, and taken up with a huge biker called Horse. It degenerates from there.

And it really degenerates, because, while this isn't perhaps as crude as the previous book, it's still crude and Raul has something that people seem to want and do anything to find, up to and including murder. Leonard isn't on the hook for any of those for long, but it underlines how serious a mess he has found himself in, yet again.

There's another reason why it degenerates but this one's hilarious. There are few writers working today who are storytellers as natural as Lansdale. I don't just know that from these pages but from hearing him talk on panels at conventions. Even though I'm sure he has a growing collection of tales in his head ready for the right moment, I get the feeling that he can spin any question into another one and it'll be dark but worthy of at least a grin and, more likely, impromptu laughter.

The beginning of this novel plays that way because Hap returns home from a job on an offshore oil rig and he and Leonard go out to a pasture to shoot cans, only to get attacked by a rabid squirrel. Oh yes, indeed! Hap is bitten and hospitalised not just because of rabies but because of the vagaries of American health insurance. Hap's bill will actually turn out lower if he stays in the hospital than if he doesn't, so he juggles meeting the needs of insurance and the needs of sneaking out to clear Leonard's name again. That's really dark but really funny.

Another complication there is that Hap has found himself a new girl, in the delightfully acerbic form of Brett Sawyer, one of his nurses. She's a perfect fit for the world of Hap and Leonard, as crude in her way as they are but in a much more ladylike fashion. She's an absolute blast and she's the single largest reason why I regret that the show never made it to a fourth season because I'd love to see who they would cast to play Brett.

While I'm reading these books at a pretty fast rate of one per month, they showed up gradually on original release, Lansdale publishing other works in between Hap and Leonard novels. The first was originally intended to be a standalone and it took him four years to follow it up with a sequel. Book three showed up a year later, but this one took another couple. Clearly, the Hap and Leonard books happen when Lansdale is ready for them to.

I liked this one and felt that the end result wasn't quite as obvious as some of its predecessors. I'm not going to go far into a synopsis because it would be difficult to avoid a couple of crucial spoilers. I will go as far as to say that the first corpse that shows up is Horse's, putting suspicion on Leonard, who had confronted him in a public bar, and that the second is Raul's, Leonard's ex. I wouldn't have gone that far but the back cover blurb does, so it's not a big surprise to anyone who's picked up the book.

I'll also mention that there's quite a lot of illegal activity going on. I won't spoil the primary business but I will raise grease napping, because I hadn't even realised it was a thing. Texas is a weird place. Apparently it involves people breaking into restaurants and stealing the grease from their ovens to sell on to recyclers. It's presumably just another opportunistic business, like stripping the lead out of rooves and the copper out of cables; stolen in large quantities, of course.

So, we have a darkly funny setup with rabid squirrels and a quirky plot all about gay bikers, grease nappers and more sinister criminals. We also get at least one great reveal; a well-handled red herring and an enjoyable new character in Jim Bob Luke, a private investigator who technically made his debut in 'Cold in July', a Lansdale but not a Hap and Leonard. It saw print in 1992, before this series had grown into a series, and presumably Lansdale saw him as too damn good to vanish after that point.

Those following the series should know that there's a little progression in this book. Marvin Hanson is still in a coma, so Charlie's the lieutenant now. Leonard is still living at his uncle's place but planning to finish up the fix-up job needed to sell it. The house next door is still ashes, as the crack dealers haven't rebuilt it after he burned it down for the third time. I wonder if we will ever see a fourth.

With the series going strong, next up for me is book five, 'Rumble Tumble', published a year after this one. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Joe R Lansdale click here

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