One thing I've always liked about the 'Hap and Leonard' stories is how nothing goes to plan. They tend to stumble into something, quite often make it worse and somehow reach a conclusion with a dogged determination and a refusal to quit. Stubbornness FTW. 'Honky Tonk Samurai', which is the ninth novel in the series but the eleventh book, because of a pair of novellas that sit between this one and its predecessor, 'Devil Red', is that squared.
For instance, the job they're hired to do never gets done, not really, although if we take the job as a question, they do find a reasonable answer. And they're only hired to do it as a form of blackmail, which is something new. They get paid a little, but not enough by a long shot, and that isn't really a problem. The point is they stumble into a situation which turns into another situation and then they stumble around within that second situation until they stumble onto a way to end it. There's a heck of a lot of stumbling going on this time around.
And there's plenty of room for that stumbling, because, after the two lean and mean novellas and at least one lean and mean novel before them, Joe R. Lansdale lets this one breathe. Looking at a chronology of the 'Hap and Leonard' stories shows that the series is an on-again, off-again romance for him. He feels the urge and writes some more, but then, satisfied, he leaves it alone for a while, before the urge creeps back up again. 'Honky Tonk Samurai' was published in 2016, three years on from the previous novella and five from the previous novel. Yet it sparked a flurry of activity, with a novel, a mosaic novel, a novelette, two more novellas and two collections following by the end of 2017, then a novel a year for the next two. The romance was definitely back on, even knowing what goes down on the final page of this book.
So, let's get to that stumbling. It all begins when Hap and Leonard, minding their own business on a minor surveillance job, see a man mistreating his dog in his driveway. Leonard doesn't like that, so takes it upon himself to mistreat the owner in the exact same way. The police are fine with that, regardless how many laws Leonard actually broke, because Marvin Hanson, the man for whom the surveillance is being done, shows up suddenly as the new chief of police. It's so quick that even Hap and Leonard didn't know anything about it. Dynamics can turn on a dime in this series.
And so the detective agency, to carefully avoid conflicts of interest, transfers from Marvin to Brett and becomes the Brett Sawyer Agency. Hap now works for his girlfriend and so does Leonard. Also, Hap and Brett now have a dog, newly rescued from its abusive owner, that they christen Buffy the Biscuit Slayer. But into their lives also comes Lilly Buckner who needs a job done. And she has video footage of Leonard beating up Buffy's former owner in his yard, because she's the neighbour who called the cops, so they go to work.
This job is simple but not easy. Lilly has a granddaughter called Sandy, who disappeared five years earlier, and she'd like to know what happened to her and, hopefully, see her again, if she's still alive. She may well not be. There's been no word and the last thing Sandy did before vanishing was steal her grandmother's savings. However, initial investigations raise all sorts of possibilities, because it seems that her job at a high-end car lot isn't what it seemed. The place is a front for prostitution, hooking rich clients up with expensive escorts on foreign trips, and also for blackmail, because the next step is to video them in flagrante and fleece the clients for everything they can get.
Fortunately, Lansdale is in fine fettle here, so we get everything we can reasonably expect from a Hap and Leonard novel, just at a more relaxed rate than usual. Don't worry, the violence is going to show up eventually, but for a while it's setup and dialogue and, given that the dialogue is likely the best aspect to any of these books, that's no hardship. Hap and Leonard bicker back and forth joyously and we knew Brett was a keeper when she proved that she could keep up with them. Best of all here, though, may well be Lilly Buckner, who's a foul-mouthed pistol of an old lady. She gives Brett a run for her money in dialogue, while Hap mostly sits back and watches the show.
When the violence does show up, it's remarkable. The people who own the toes Hap and Leonard are stepping on are not unimportant, whoever they might be, and, it doesn't take too long before they start stepping back. Naturally, this escalates until they have to call in the cavalry, which turns out to be an interesting bunch: Joe Bob Luke, thus ensuring even more glorious dialogue, because this man is a true gift to a novelist like Lansdale; a capable psychopath named Booger; and, called in from foreign parts unknown, the beautiful assassin Vanilla Ride, who still has the hots for Hap, much to Jim Bob Luke's chagrin. They're needed because the big bad bogeyman they'll need to face is a legend named the Canceler, who has a habit of garrotting his victims and taking their testicles.
This is surely the best 'Hap and Leonard' novel in a long, long time. For all its non-traditional push, it's a patient read that knows what it wants to do and how it wants to get there. We're tasked with figuring out how it's going to do that, because there are a lot of ways it could do, but it's certainly comfortable in its inevitability and our inevitability in catching up. Sure, Vanilla Ride is too much of a wish-fulfilment character to be truly believable, but then everyone in these novels is larger than life, even if they're working at the lowest levels of society. Lansdale has fun with them.
Next up for me, if I can find it, is a novelette called Briar Patch Boogie. If not, I'll be on the hunt for novellas again in cheaper form than their original limited underground press hardback editions. If I can't find them either, then it'll be 'Rusty Puppy', the tenth novel in the series, which I've actually begun, given that the first couple of chapters are included as a bonus in my edition of 'Honky Tonk Samurai'. I rarely read those, but I did in this instance because of where Lansdale leaves us hanging on the last page of this one. And, if you want to know where that is, you'll need to buy the book for yourself. And, if you do that, you might as well buy the series, because it's increasingly immersive. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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