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Captains Outrageous
Hap & Leonard #6
by Joe R. Lansdale
Vintage, $15.00, 336pp
Published: November 2009

It's easy to see the eras in Hap and Leonard books by the years in which they were published. Firstly, there's 'Savage Season', a standalone novel that became a series when the author returned to it four years later. Secondly, there are five books in eight years as Lansdale figured out what he wanted the pair and their supporting characters to be and put them through all sorts of hell to get there. This book is the final one from that era and Lansdale left the series alone for eight years after it. Thirdly, there are a couple more books and another five year gap. Lastly, for now, there's another busy batch of activity with four in as many years.

We know why the first gap. It's easy to see why the second too, because this carries a different tone to it, a wearier one as if Hap and Leonard were telling their author, "Enough already!" The previous book had a tumultuous ending, one that left them sitting back and take stock. Brett is dealing with her now-rescued daughter, which has put a strain on her relationship with Hap. There's hope but it's all on hold for now. Hap and Leonard are now working security for a chicken processing plant, which is steady work but hardly a dream job. The feeling is that they just want to exist for a while without anything wild and wacky happening. The only people moving forward are Marvin and Charlie, as the former is out of his coma and the pair are planning to set up in business as private investigators.

But this is a Hap and Leonard novel, so something is absolutely going to happen. This time out, it's wild without being that wacky, which adds weight to it and makes it grind somewhat. It's the end of a shift. Leonard's driving home and Hap's about to follow when he sees something. It's a girl, naked as the day she was born, just beyond the parking lot, being attacked. Hap, as ever the hero, comes to her rescue in a scene that's fictional for him but based on a real event. It's not the fairy tale it seems like, as the girl is horribly wounded and traumatised and the fight isn't clean or easy, but it ends as it should with the girl safe and her attacker in custody.

It turns out that she's the daughter of the owner of the plant and, to thank Hap, he gives him $100k and a month off to go out and enjoy life. Where this leads is a cruise, suggested by John, Leonard's new boyfriend. Where Hap goes, Leonard goes and the pair of them soon depart New Orleans on the Sea Pleasure for a cruise around the Gulf of Mexico. And we almost settle down to see them actually enjoy themselves for a while, at least in their own idiosyncratic ways, but that doesn't happen. First comes the turbulence of a bad night at sea. Then comes an officious doorman who requires them to wear ties, even though it's not in the rules of the posh dining area. Only Hap and Leonard can have so much trouble having fun.

And then they get to Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancún on the Yucatan peninsula in Quintana Roo, where everything goes pear-shaped. That officious doorman deliberately tells them the wrong time to be back at the boat and so it leaves without them. They do have money in their pockets but the next they know, they're being mugged by off-duty cops from Cozumel and Leonard is knifed in the stomach. Enter Ferdinand, a local guide to tourist fisherman, and his daughter Beatrice to help them out. They stay with the latter overnight and they get caught up in their troubles. And, before we know it, Beatrice is dead and both Hap and Leonard, along with one of those tourist fishermen, Billy by name, find themselves in a Mexican jail.

The title of this book is a take on 'Captains Courageous', the classic Rudyard Kipling novel about an entitled rich boy who's swept off a steamship in the Grand Banks and rescued by a fishing schooner, on which he learns about life, work and responsibility during a season at sea. That's neatly riffed on during a fishing trip chartered from Ferdinand by Billy and his colleagues, an obnoxiously entitled bunch, who dearly need the lesson that Harvey Cheyne, Jr. receives in 'Captains Courageous'. Maybe Billy gets it in a different way. Billy's left in that jail when Hap and Leonard are released to reflect on his misdeeds.

In a way reminiscent of 'The Two-Bear Mambo' earlier in the series, our beleaguered heroes call it a day and return home to LaBorde, TX, but the story isn't quite done with them yet. Beatrice's death ties to her and her father being in deep to a local kingpin called Juan Miguel. Even if she slept with him, it isn't Hap's fight to pick up and it's certainly not Leonard's, so they go back to their lives and let it be. But Mexico comes calling, the long fingers of Juan Miguel reaching out to LaBorde to kill Hap, only to get Charlie instead. Now it's personal and we're set for the second half's grim mission of revenge.

I say grim not only because there isn't much of the black humour we're used to in Hap and Leonard novels. The closest to a wild character here is Juan Miguel because he's not only a ruthless kingpin, he's also a nudist, but that doesn't remotely compare to Red the verbose midget from the previous book. We do get to meet Bob, Leonard's pet armadillo, but he's a legacy from 'Rumble Tumble'. The rabid squirrels and undercover cop gay bikers and Klan leaders are left in the past. The tone is very subdued here, appropriately so given that Hap and Leonard remember what happened towards the end of 'Rumble Tumble', when they were in a very different, but just as dangerous, part of Mexico. Also, they have a very deliberate goal, which isn't a rescue this time out.

It's also a concerted team effort. Brett's back on board, not only to return a serious favour now her daughter's safe. So's Jim Bob Luke, last seen in 'Bad Chili', because he was Charlie's friend, too, and a character too good to waste. He also has contacts in Mexico and brings in his friend César, a PI from the area who has a history of his own with Juan Miguel. Hap and Leonard are always well-meaning, but they're the muscle not the brains and they stumble through these novels with a combination of stubbornness and sheer inertia. It's good to see them be part of an escapade that's actually planned by people who know what they're doing, even if it doesn't go as smoothly as it could.

There are many endings, to wrap up many loose ends, but one is left conspicuously untied, so much so that I have to assume that it was a deliberate decision by Lansdale. And, because it doesn't spoil anything, I'll point out that it's that officious doorman. He leaves this novel with the Sea Pleasure partway through, utterly oblivious to what his one petty act in giving Hap and Leonard the wrong departure time would grow into. It's a fantastic literary example of the butterfly effect, one simple and fundamentally minor act by one man in one place spawning a cycle of death across two nations. And he never knows it.

And so to an eight-year gap for Joe R. Lansdale, before he'd follow up 'Captains Outrageous' with a seventh Hap and Leonard novel, a period during which he published other novels and collections of short stories. It'll only be a month gap for me, though, because I'll be back with 'Vanilla Ride' next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Joe R Lansdale click here

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