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The Two-Bear Mambo
Hap and Leonard #3
by Joe R. Lansdale
Vintage, $15.00, 288pp
Published: Mary 2009

With Hap being white and Leonard being black and with both of them living in East Texas, race was always going to be a factor in this series. This is the third of many books, but it was the last of them to be adapted to television for the 'Hap and Leonard' show, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which is why I chose to dive into the books. Each of those three seasons was more about race than its predecessor and the third was acutely about race, focusing as it did on Grovetown, a small town run by the Klan, and what went down after a female black lawyer went there on business and didn't come back.

That female black lawyer, of course, is Florida Grange, Hap's ex and now the girlfriend of Marvin Hanson, local cop, and that's why our two leads end up driving to Grovetown, in search of her. What they get up there to unfolds in a mostly similar fashion to the show, but it's both simplified and deepened, as the first two books were. There's a smaller cast of characters to explore, fewer locations to visit and less intention to come up with clever twists to complicate what's really a simple story.

As in the later TV adaptation, Florida travels to Grovetown to see a client, a young black blues guitarist, Bobby Joe Soothe, who's also the grandson of a much more famous black blues guitarist, L. C. Soothe, thus allowing Lansdale to play with the old crossroads myth usually associated with Robert Johnson. Soothe apparently has hitherto unknown recordings of L. C. and needs a legal representative to handle. Next thing we know, Soothe is dead, apparently from suicide in a local police cell, and Florida is missing.

Where this starts to depart from the show (technically vice versa, but I have to go in the order I experienced them) is in how much focus is given to Bobby Joe and that side of the story. It's a big deal in the show, with the records a serious MacGuffin, sought after by characters like an eager local DJ who is nowhere to be found in the book. It doesn't really matter here, just a reason to put Florida in harm's way. Everyone knows that Bobby Joe was a dangerous asshole and, while it remains likely that he was murdered, absolutely nobody cares about who or why.

What matters here is that Florida is missing and our intrepid searchers stir up the town. They're pretty useless at mounting a viable investigation, which is rather refreshing but also moves this away from being a mystery in the way we might expect, with clues and evidence and little grey cells, and closer to just a character study, not only of the lead characters but of Grovetown too.

You see, there's a serious vein of racism running through the town. It isn't the Klan, though it's a close equivalent, and it's led by a white supremacist by the name of Jackson Truman Brown, who's drummed up a lot of local support, partly because he owns much of the town. There are black folks in Grovetown, but they're segregated into the black part of town, and, unlike in the show, we hardly visit there. Unless my memory is playing up again, I think we only meet two black characters in this book and one of those is Leonard.

So Leonard waltzing into town like he's a human being rubs these folk up the wrong way and Hap isn't much higher in their estimation for accompanying him. They're both smart asses and their conversation lands them into all sorts of trouble. Sure, some of this is deliberate because they're absolutely stirring the pot to see what happens, but what happens is a lot more brutal than they expect. The brawl in Maude's restaurant isn't quite as one sided in the book as the show, because her two sons help Hap and Leonard, but it ends in pretty much the same way, but with a more telling detail. It isn't a Klan leader who tries to take Leonard's balls off; it's an old woman in a blue rinse.

The other black character is Maude's cook, who goes by Bacon. Maude is a lot more adjusted to modern ways of thinking than many of the townsfolk and she's got no love for Jackson Truman Brown. There are good people in Grovetown, led by Sheriff Cantuck, who turns out to be a more decent soul than he was in the show, but life's a struggle for them in such a hate-fueled environment. The dynamic between a dominant racist population and a few key detractors is well explored, even if no solutions are offered.

If there isn't much of a mystery and perhaps even less actual deduction, it's all wrapped up pretty well, without any of the complications that were added into the show. It's also wrapped up pretty emphatically, not just for Florida and Bobby Joe but for Grovetown as well. Maybe there is a solution offered; a solution that does the trick, even if it isn't one we can easily adopt in the America of 2020 with Nazis on the rise.

Lansdale seems to be doubling down on his approach to this series and it has to be said that it isn't going to be for everyone. The dialogue is crude, to say the very least, but it's glorious. Lansdale has a street poet's heart and a magical turn of phrase. Quite frankly, if you pick this novel up as a test to see if you're going to like Hap and Leonard and you make it past the first couple of chapters without leaving because of the language, then you're going to be fine.

From a series perspective and, as a last comparison to the show, there are a few key things to note.

Firstly, there's a clear gap between the previous book and this one. Trudy's been dead for four years now; she died in the first book and that rolled into the second. We join this one as Leonard's setting fire to the crackhouse next door for the third time; we've only seen him do that once. Secondly, Raul is introduced on page one; he's Leonard's boyfriend and his part here is mostly confined to what it means to Leonard. He plays a far smaller role than he got in the show.

The Grovetown police force is notably different too. There's nobody here from LaBorde and racist Officer Reynolds is a big solid man rather than the vision of Aryan beauty the show employed, which makes his relationship with the Klan leader very different. His relationship with the station's married secretary, a supposedly devout Christian helps to underline the hypocrisy that flavours the whole town.

I liked this, even if it's wildly mislabelled. It's a pretty pathetic mystery and not much more of a crime novel. However, it's a fantastic character study and the writing feels so smooth and easy that we can easily imagine many more novels in the series, even without a quarter of a century's hindsight and the benefit of Joe Lansdale's Wikipedia page.

Next month for me is book four, 'Bad Chili', which will be completely new to me because the show ended after it adapted this one. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Joe R Lansdale click here

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