When I was in high school, I watched Out of Sight and Get Shorty and became intrigued by Elmore Leonard, whose books were turned into such crackling crime thrillers. I quickly took it upon myself to familiarize myself with his work. I actually read the first two Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, back then, so when my book club suggested we read Raylan, I was curious to see where Leonard would take the character. From what I remembered of the first two books, Raylan wasn’t actually the primary focus; instead, he was a big part of an ensemble cast, and shared equal billing with other characters. Raylan, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the titular marshall’s adventures.
The first thing you should know about Raylan is that it apparently covers a lot of the same ground as the TV show. I haven’t watched it yet, so I don’t know for sure how similar the two versions are. Most of the one-star reviews complain that Leonard must be “riding on the coattails” of the show’s success with this book, when I believe the actual story is that they asked him to write another book as a sort of tie-in to the show, and he gave them pages to use as they pleased.
The second thing you should know is that this is a book made to be read aloud. On the page, Leonard’s writing seems affected at first glance. Words and punctuation are missing, and it’s hard to get a sense for the rhythm without hearing it. When I switched to the audiobook, the book immediately came alive for me and was much easier to follow. In fact, Leonard’s writing began seeping into the way I spoke and wrote, which is one of the surest signs you’re dealing with a true master of the craft.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Leonard’s spare, crisp writing is in full effect throughout, Raylan is clearly one of his minor works. It doesn’t read like a full novel; instead, the story feels episodic, as if several short stories were stitched together to create a novel-length work. The book comes in three loosely defined parts. First, Raylan tangles with weed dealers who steal body parts and sell them back to the victims. Next, he works as a bodyguard for a coal company woman who works in “disagreements”. Finally, he chases down a young female card shark who may be mixed up in a bank robbery scheme.
The first section has the most tension because it feels like Raylan is in the most danger, but even still, he drawls his way through most encounters, always impeccably cool and quick on the draw. If the book had ended there it would have been an excellent novella. The real problem is that it never really feels like the disparate stories add up to much of anything. I also got the impression that the book was relying on the reader’s likely familiarity with the TV show, and the characterization suffered as a result.
It really is a shame that Raylan doesn’t quite deliver, because I enjoyed the book while I was listening to it, loved the rhythms of Leonard’s writing, and was immediately drawn to get back into reading his stuff as soon as I finished. I read the book with my book club and I don’t think any of them had ever read any of his other works, and I have to wonder if they’ll seek them out now, because most of them came away disappointed.
Ultimately, Raylan is a quick read worth checking out, but not the best place to start with Leonard’s work. If nothing else, it reminded me that Leonard is one of my personal heroes. I’m planning on reading more of his work as soon as possible (I’ve already started Bandits), and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t start writing all my stories to sound like him.