It's probably fair to say that I liked the first 'Hap and Leonard' book but I've liked each book that follows more. That may not hold 100% true but the trend can't be far off and this one feels like a companion piece to its predecessor, 'Vanilla Red', which I had a real blast with. Every further book that I read makes me sadder that the Sundance Channel hadn't cancelled the TV adaptation after three seasons.
In addition to introducing a new story, each book progresses the series on a little more and that progression this time out is that our intrepid anti-heroes get into the private investigation game. They're not PIs, as that role falls to their former cop friend, Marvin Hanson, now that he's recovering from the coma he fell into in ‘The Two-Bear Mambo.’ He can't do everything himself, so he hires Hap and Leonard to do some of the legwork.
Of course, they're happy to oblige, whether it involves the actual asking of questions or just the whacking bad guys with baseball bats to make a point. The latter is just a quick job to set the tone. A two-bit thug beat up an old lady for next to nothing and got away with it as it was just his word against hers. Hanson sends Hap and Leonard in to retrieve the $88.45 he got away with in return for her broken hand and to send a violent message to ensure that it doesn't happen again.
As always, the violence doesn't stop there. "I feel like a hired leg breaker," suggests Hap and Leonard responds, "You are a hired leg breaker." Therefore, to keep the tone lighter than it could be otherwise, Lansdale injects a running gag in the form of Leonard's new hat, which is a deerstalker that Hap hates even more than being a hired leg breaker. It's a wonderful touch and the book needed it.
That's because it gets pretty dark. The core story involves a double homicide that's now a cold case because the cops couldn't find any leads. Hanson is hired to try again by the mother of one of the victims, Ted Christopher, a rich widow who can easily afford it, and so Hap and Leonard go digging around. What they find is that it's the other victim, his girlfriend Mini Marchland, who's more interesting and so's the horned head painted on a nearby tree in red spraypaint.
Given that it's highlighted in the back cover blurb of my Black Lizard trade paperback, I guess I can safely mention that Mini was kinky enough to have run with a vampire cult, one that has quite the history. That means that there's plenty of dirt to dig up that the cops either chose or were paid off not to pursue, and, in turn, that means that someone is not going to be too happy about Hap and Leonard doing the digging.
One of the reasons that this feels like such a companion piece to 'Vanilla Red', while not serving as a sequel per se, is that we soon found ourselves in hired killer territory. That surely can't be much of a surprise because, once you've got onto the radar of people like the organised crime syndicate known as the Dixie Mafia and professional assassins such as Vanilla Ride, you can't really get off them again and, sure enough, they're all trawled back in again here to tie up some loose ends and float some new possibilities.
What impresses me is that exploring the depths of that underground feels fresh, even if it's kind of inevitable given where the series has been taking us. This eighth book in the series was released in 2011, two years after 'Vanilla Ride', but, with the sole exception of a novella, 'Hyenas', that accompanied this one, there's quite the gap around these books and that's telling.
Lansdale clearly took a break after 'Captains Outrageous' and it's not hard to see that it was because he was losing that freshness, and it took him eight years to get from that to 'Vanilla Ride'. That, in turn, obviously led to this, but Lansdale then took five years off before returning once more for a string of further episodes that began with 'Honky Tonk Samurai' in 2016. I appreciate him doing what it took to keep this series fresh.
And it needs to be kept fresh, because it would be effortlessly easy for Hap and Leonard to fall into the same ol' same ol' and just repeat. Some scenes here are a bit reminiscent of earlier books and, of course, our leading duo haven't grown that much because they have to remain willing if not eager participants in whatever shenanigans get floated for a little pay. Lansdale focuses a little more on Hap this time, perhaps realising that he's a nice guy and he has to progressively have more and more problems with this lifestyle.
There are other catches, one of which is that it's very short. It unfolds in similar fashion to 'Vanilla Ride', with its collection of lean and mean short chapters, which means that, even if it runs to seventy-three chapters, it still wraps up in under two hundred pages. That might have seemed a solid page count in 1971, but it was hardly a substantial read in 2011. Perhaps that's because, to mention another, it's so lean and mean that it often feels a little more like a very detailed synopsis with too little meat on its worthy bones.
I still enjoyed this one a lot. This underground feels like it's the natural place, if not the happiest of places, for Hap and Leonard to be in at this point. I wonder if that changes a little in the next book. I have a feeling that it might. However, I have a copy of 'Hyenas' on the shelf that I picked up from Joe at that the Phoenix Comicon that was, so I'll take a look at that next month. See you then! And don't go breaking anyone's legs for a mere $25 in the meantime. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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