I liked 'Savage Season', which I believe was not originally meant to be the first in a long-running series featuring Hap and Leonard. I believe Lansdale wrote a standalone novel but it was popular enough or hit the right creative nerve or impressed the right people to warrant continuing. This is the first sequel and it's better in pretty much every way.
It's longer for a start, expanding from two hundred pages to three, so not a long book but one with a lot more room for Hap and Leonard and their newest story to breathe. 'Savage Season' felt short, lean and mean but also rather barebones. This feels right, even if the mystery at the heart of the book is hardly the deepest I've ever read. Lansdale has an uncanny ability in pacing where his prose really doesn't mess around but somehow still seems leisurely and patient. It's notably efficient, even if it feels like he's narrating it to us from a lazy porch with a beer by his side.
I should point out here that it's a lot more straightforward than season two of the TV show, which was directly adapted from it. While the story may have benefitted from the additional complexity in the script, this original feels truer and more authentic. Sometimes mysteries aren't complex and are, frankly, only mysteries because nobody has bothered to investigate them.
There are fewer characters in the book than the show and we never meet some of them, even though we have pictures in our head of what they look like, as the show bulked up their parts. The core is consistent though, not just Hap and Leonard themselves but the basic mystery. Leonard's uncle Chester, just a name as we start this book, has passed away and Leonard has inherited his house and a tidy sum, a hundred thousand dollars. Chester was a hoarder and our leads spend their time clearing out his house and renovating it. That's when they find the chest under the floor.
In the show, they just found a skeleton, of a young boy, clearly murdered. The cops immediately suspect Uncle Chester of being a paedophile and killer, with no evidence, and shoehorn Leonard into their theory as an accomplice. In this book, there's plenty of evidence from moment one. Not only is that body there, but it's in a trunk with Chester's name on it, a trunk whose key is found in Chester's safe deposit box. The chest also contains kiddie porn magazines. The obvious suspicions are clearly worth investigating.
The most radical change here is that the cops leave Leonard alone. There is a history of racism in law enforcement in LaBorde, TX - serious racism that's enough to leave the serial murder of black kids effectively uninvestigated. However, the two cops who answer Leonard's call and look into the body he's found, are not racist. Lt. Marvin Hanson is black and honest and he lets Hap and Leonard continue attempting to clear Chester's name, as long as they're forthcoming with their findings. Charlie is white. Clearly we'll see a lot more from both of them as the series progresses.
Much of the rest of the book continues as the show does, but with a bunch of differences in the details. MeMaw Carter does live across the street but she isn't as connected to Leonard as in the show. The reverend isn't her son and neither is his mentally handicapped brother. She does have a son and he does feature in the story, but they follow different plotlines. There's no albino kid, just a drug addict who crawls under Leonard's house and prompts him to burn down the crackhouse next door. That's all handled very differently too, enjoyably so. Illium Moon is what he is in the show, just already dead when we meet him. Hap gets together with Florida Grange, Leonard's lawyer, sooner and for longer. And so on...
I liked this novel a lot. Given how barebones 'Savage Season' was, Lansdale did a fantastic job of building characters and he continues that here. Hap and Leonard are a glorious pairing, opposites in so many ways but with such a common drive forward. These two are real friends, bonded in ways that we see and ways that we don't, and it's refreshing to read that. What's perhaps most impressive is that it doesn't feel like Lansdale even tried to deepen them as characters, they just grew onto his pages. That's the sign of a damn good writer. Marvin, MeMaw and Florida are all deeper than they would be in most mysteries too.
The most obvious problem isn't really a problem, merely seems to be one from our experience with other mysteries. That's the fact that the mystery isn't particularly deep. Even had I not seen the show and thus known roughly where everything was going, I'd have figured this out pretty quickly. There aren't enough characters to make this difficult and there's little complexity to be found during the investigation. Sure, there's a nice extra twist to be found that the show left alone, but this isn't rocket science.
What that means is that, for those reading mysteries to solve the mystery in as few pages as possible, this is going to feel off to you. Heck, they don't even find the trunk until sixty pages in, so there is no mystery for a fifth of the book. This is really a character study, a drama and an exploration of Lansdale's beloved East Texas, which merely happens to have a mystery in it that also happens to shape everything else around it. On those terms, it's excellent stuff.
Next up for me is 'The Two-Bear Mambo', which was adapted into the third and final season of the TV show. After that I'll be on entirely new ground with no knowledge of where anything is going. I'm expecting 'The Two-Bear Mambo' to be much more racially aware, something that was more overt throughout in the show and much earlier.
This novel doesn't ignore race at all, but paints it more as the background the mystery is framed against. The most racist aspect is the fact that local law enforcement didn't really bother to investigate a decade long string of black boys missing presumed dead and even the black lieutenant in changing times can't get the case off the ground. That's crucial stuff but it isn't the focus, it's just the backdrop. In the next book, I'm expecting it to be the focus. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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