Country Noir: Raylan: A Novel by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard has been inordinately successful getting his books adapted to the screen.  Justified, the TV show based on the character Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from Pronto, Riding the Rap, and the short story Fire in the Hole (the last adapted for the Justified pilot), is as good as any Leonard adaption.  Seeing his characters with such incredible life breathed into him had to have spurred Leonard return to Givens with his novel Raylan (which was to be his last).

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Short Review Roundup: Elmore Leonard Edition

I have been on a bit of an Elmore Leonard kick here lately.  His work has everything I like about country noir, but in an easily digestible, popcorn style and form.  My gateway to Elmore Leonard was the great Justified (which I still need to buy on blu-ray, rewatch, and blog about extensively).  I was admittedly thrown off by my first Elmore Leonard novel, Raylan.  Raylan suffered from covering ground already covered by the show.  But it really suffered from eastern Kentucky not being Leonard’s turf.  His work is always better in Florida, I think.

Elmore Leonard, Miami Bookfair International, 1989 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Country Noir: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

“This is who I am.  I can’t change.  I don’t want to, really.  But for once I’m gonna put this devil inside me to good use.”

S.A. Cosby impressed me with Blacktop Wasteland.  He absolutely blew me away with Razorblade Tears.

A killer premise is always a good start.  Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee are plenty different.  Ike is black; Buddy Lee is white.  Ike built a business from the ground up and employs crews of workers; Buddy Lee’s work history is checkered at best.  Ike is a comfortable business and home owner; Buddy Lee lives in a dilapidated single-wide trailer with a window unit that pushes around lukewarm air.  Ike is happily married; Buddy Lee hasn’t been in a serious relationship since his son’s mom left him.  But they have a few things in common too.  Both did time in prison.  Both have ample capacity to deal out violence.  Neither could accept their son’s homosexuality.  Their sons who were married to each other.  Who were just murdered.

To paraphrase Solomon Kane, men will die for that.

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Fiction: Kill All Your Darlings by David Bell

I didn’t originally plan to write a post on Kill All Your Darlings.  It is positioned as a psychological thriller and set on a college campus.  Hardly the stuff of grit lit or country noir.  But it is set in Kentucky, and Bell leavens the thriller tropes with enough (well-crafted) literariness and inserts enough grit into character backgrounds to slink onto these pages.

Photo of the Western Kentucky campus by Bbadgett
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Country Noir: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

When you really love a subgenre, you don’t want to read the same thing over and over again, but you do want to see tweaks and new takes on your cherished tropes.  Blacktop Wasteland falls right square in the country noir subgenre.  It distinguishes itself from the field not just with execution but with a protagonist who is a wheelman (and all the car chases the choice suggests) and African-American.

1971 Plymouth Duster pic by Kevauto
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Country Noir: My Father Like a River by Ron Rash

My Father Like a River includes two short stories: the title story and the longer The Trusty.  The Trusty was also published in Rash’s short story collection Nothing Gold Can Stay.  It’s as good now as it was when I read Nothing Gold Can Stay, but I’m disappointed to see a story I already own and have read.  As is usually the case with Rash, both stories take place in the mountains of NC.

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Fiction: Far from the Tree by Rob Parker, narrated by Warren Brown

When I say “country noir” in my blog subtitle, I am first and foremost talking about stories of my people—rural hillbillies from southern Appalachia.  But I am not just talking about that.  I can, have, and will read country noir set in the Ozarks, in the Texas Piney Woods, in the Rust Belt.  I have always contended those stories, and books telling versions of them, existed outside the U.S. as well.  I just haven’t known where to look.  I have also long contended that you can set a country noir in the city.  With Rob Parker’s Far from the Tree, I found a damn fine example of both.

The small town of Warrington, smack dab between Liverpool and Manchester in northern England, is roiled when a trench containing 27 bodies is discovered in a local forest.  Lead investigator Brenden Foley’s world is further rocked when he makes the first identification—his nephew.

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Country Noir: The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

It is rare that a book is considerate enough to explain itself in one pithy paragraph.  It is ever rarer for it to be appropriate to start a review by quoting the last paragraph of a book.  But both are true for The Tilted World.

This story is a story with murder and moonshine, sandbagging and saboteurs, dynamite and deluge.  A ruthless husband, a troubled uncle, a dangerous flapper, a loyal partner.  A woman, married to the wrong husband, who died a little every day.  A man who felt invisible.

But most of all, this is a love story.  This is the story of how we became a family.

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Fiction: Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail by T.J. Forrester

I posted on Facebook a couple times over the last few weeks about the mystery behind the man with the trail name Mostly Harmless who was found dead in his tent.  Vance John Rodriguez went into the woods to find himself.  It didn’t save him.  I’ve been reading Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft.  Going into the woods did save Kephart.  Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is the story of Taz Chavis finding himself.  Recently released from prison, and after traveling to his hometown to settle his father’s estate, Taz sets off on a through hike of the Appalachian Trail to leave his life in the gutter behind.

In the vast wilderness of the Appalachian Trail, three hikers are searching for answers. Taz Chavis, just released from prison, sees the thru-hike as his path to salvation and a way to distance himself from a toxic relationship. Simone Decker, a young scientist with a dark secret, is desperate to quell her demons. Richard Nelson, a Blackfoot Indian, seeks a final adventure before taking over the family business back home. As they battle hunger, thirst, and loneliness, and traverse the rugged terrain, their paths begin to intersect, and it soon becomes clear that surviving the elements may be the least of their concerns. Hikers are dying along the trail, their broken bodies splayed on the rocks below. Are these falls accidental, the result of carelessness, or is something more sinister at work?

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Fiction: City of Hate by Timothy S. Miller

A book like City of Hate might not have normally caught my eye, but author Timothy Miller offered to send me a copy.  I’m glad I jumped on the offer.  City of Hate is “city noir” that imports much of what I love about country noir.  The setting and the backdrop are inspired, even if the execution wasn’t perfectly to my liking.

I lived in Houston during my swing through Texas.  One of Houston’s nicknames is the “Big Heart,” earned by the open arms its residents met Hurricane Katrina victims.  You could still see “I ♥ Houston” bumper stickers around New Orleans when I was traveling there on a regular basis for work.  Dallas has a nickname of its own that highlights the inevitability of comparisons between the cities and their relative merits: City of Hate.  The moniker is inextricably tied to JFK’s Dallas assassination.  Which might seem a little unfair.  Lee Harvey Oswald only lived in Dallas for a year.  And, whatever conspiracy you might embrace, the bulk of the city certainly didn’t participate in the assassination.  But the stage was already set for the moniker to stick, not by the dull statistic that Nixon won Dallas by a bigger margin than any other city (as remarkable as the existence of such a stat is today) but by a made-for-TV moment where vicious, pearled Dallas society women frothed (read: spit) at Lyndon and Ladybird John in front of a national audience.

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