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Leather Maiden
by Joe R. Lansdale
Knopf, $16.00, 287pp
Published: August 2008

Having reviewed 'Honky Tonk Samurai' in June, I had a lot of choice as to what to tackle in July. That's the ninth novel in the 'Hap and Leonard' series, so the tenth is 'Rusty Puppy'. However, in between is a pair of novellas, 'Hoodoo Harry' and 'Coco Butternut', and before them is a novelette called 'Briar Patch Boogie', but I haven't got round to figuring out how easy it will be to get hold of those, because they're not in either of the two collections that also saw release inbetween books nine and ten.

So I'm taking a look at 'Leather Maiden' because it was on my shelf already and the timing is good as, while this isn't a 'Hap and Leonard' novel, it's set in the same East Texas because the characters in the lead roles are characters who I just met in 'Honky Tonk Samurai'. Mostly, that means Cason Statler, an Iraq War veteran who's trying to figure out what to do with his life, now that he's back home in Camp Rapture; but it also means his psychopath war buddy Booger, to whom he sent Hap and Leonard when they needed someone dangerous who wouldn't ask the wrong questions.

Booger was a memorable character in 'Honky Tonk Samurai', someone who's very good in his element but who you really don't want to see in his element unless you're watching from a very safe distance, like he's on the page and you're safe in bed reading about him. That sort of distance. Statler only had a smaller part in that book, but he's not as scary a dude. He's a capable journalist, who had once been nominated for a Pulitzer when working for a paper in Houston, but he's still a little troubled by what he saw and did over in Iraq and the local Camp Rapture paper will do for him while he's recovering.

I should point out that he's not wildly and erratically suffering from PTSD, but Lansdale tells this from his perspective and some of what we learn about him is through the reactions of others. For instance, his ex-wife works as a vet in Camp Rapture and he'd really like to get back together with her. From his perspective, he's a little clingy, driving past her practice just to catch a glimpse, that sort of thing. It's not good and we know he needs to get over it, but it's not outrageous behaviour. However, when they actually interact, she's clearly a lot more scared of what might happen than we've been led to believe and that's because he rationalises away too much of his darkness.

Frankly, he's destined to just fade away into obscurity in Camp Rapture, but he stumbles onto a story as he's finding his feet. Looking through his predecessor's notes, he discovers that a beautiful young college student called Caroline Allison vanished six months earlier and nobody has a clue what might have happened to her. They assume she's dead, of course, but there's no body and nothing much to go on. So, of course, Statler starts to poke around with his journalistic stick and, before too long, he gets results.

However, his first problem is that he can't actually use them, which is pretty brutal for a journalist. A DVD shows up in the mail and it's a sex tape of the missing girl, Caroline Allison, but her partner in it is Statler's own married brother, Jimmy, who taught her history at college. At least Jimmy's going to answer his questions, not least because he receives a copy too, along with a demand for $10,000 that might stop the blackmailer sharing further copies with others. Now, you won't be shocked to discover that, even if Jimmy thinks he had something special with Caroline, he's far from the only person who she hooked up with, was recorded on video and is now getting blackmailed, and the result ends up as quite the conspiracy.

I liked this novel, even if it doesn't have quite so much of the humour that helps to offset the violence in the 'Hap and Leonard' books. As much as I missed them, I enjoyed having a new narrator for a dark tale of blackmail and murder in East Texas and the story progresses in a very different way because of their absence. Sure, it gets violent and brutal, because this sort of story kind of has to, but Statler has a journalistic approach to things that involves more research and thought and process than any sort of bull in the china shop approach, even when Booger shows up, as we know he will.

We get a little background on him here and it turns out that Booger runs a shooting range and a bar in Hootie Hoot, Oklahoma, which we visited in the fifth 'Hap and Leonard' novel, 'Rumble Tumble'. It doesn't surprise us at all that he likes to shoot guns, but he's the sort of character who comes with an easily defined set of expectations and he flouts those rather often. He's a real wildcard of a character, because he's not easy to fit into a single bucket, and sometimes a wildcard, especially one without a conscience, is exactly who you want to introduce into a cold case that's warming up nicely.

This relationship isn't remotely as close as that between Hap and Leonard, but it's still a relationship and it's all the more abiding because it was literally forged in battle. Even though he served with him and he has absolutely no reason to doubt of  what he's capable, and he has good reason to be. I like how he treasures that comradely friendship, but fears it too; because nothing Booger gets involved with is ever going to turn out simply and easily. I also like how Statler is trying to put his past in Iraq behind him but has to call in a colleague who scared him back then to help him out. Lansdale knows exactly what that will do to his attempts to heal and it deepens his character wonderfully.

It's easy to read this novel as a surface film noir sort of book. Introduce us to a complex crime through a simple entry point. Lead us through the growing revelations in the eyes of a troubled journalist who wants a quiet life but can't resist a good story. Complicate his investigation by conflicting his loyalties and then throw in a wildcard to seriously shake the tree and see what falls out. It's textbook stuff and Lansdale can do this in his sleep.

However, it's not particularly notable for its plot. This has been done before and often and frequently well, so Lansdale is treading in busy waters. What makes this work so well is what's happening under the surface. Cason Statler may not have been a particularly wild character in 'Honky Tonk Samurai', a pretty straightforward contact who proved useful at a couple of points in that story; but there's a lot of depth to him that Lansdale's able to explore here in this peripheral novel that was published back in 2008, before Hap and Leonard even encountered Vanilla Ride, let alone Booger.

I wonder how big this wider universe is. There are quite a few supporting characters dotted amongst the 'Hap and Leonard' novels that easily warrant their own stories: Jim Bob Luke, Vanilla Ride, even Juan Miguel, the villain of 'Captains Courageous'. However, I have no idea how many, if any, ever got the full novel treatment the way that Cason Statler did here. I'm intrigued to find out. And, while I'm figuring that out, let's see if we return to regular programming in August. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Joe R Lansdale click here

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