Joe R. Lansdale has flirted with science fiction over the years in stories like “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks” or “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back”. Or, if steampunk is your thing, you could do much worse than Flaming London and Zeppelins West (collected together in The Adventures of Ned the Seal. And there is his comic book stuff which is full of fantastic elements.
But many readers have not taken in the plunge into the waters of Joe’s mystery work and that is a shame. His tales of Hap Collins and Leonard Pine may just be his best work. The things that make the other stories classics are here too. The snappy dialogue, the outrageous situations, the East Texas settings. All there.
Recently, there have been two Hap and Leonard books issued. So, I am a voice crying in the wilderness. “Throw off your shackles and embrace the Mystery! You will not be sorry.”
(To be fair, it has been my experience that science fiction fans will read more omnivorously in other fields than mystery fans. But, if you have not done so, this is a good place to start. If you have, keep reading.)
Devil Red is latest novel to feature these two unlikely friends – Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is a Vietnam era burnout slacker. He does odd jobs, has a girlfriend named Brett and knows martial arts. His best friend is Leonard Pine, a tall gay black man with a chip on his shoulder. They both understand and hate violence as a means to an end.
The pair first appeared in the novel Savage Season (1990) and were featured in six novels until 2001 when they disappeared off the map as Lansdale explored stand alone novels during the period. (He also changed publishers around this time, which probably contributed to their exile.)
In 2009 they re-appeared in Vanilla Ride, one of the better entries in the series where they have pissed off a local bad guy who hires legendary contract killer Vanilla Ride to send them on to their reward. If you have never read these books, they are fun and exciting. Bad Chili (1997) has one of the two funniest beginnings I have ever read for a mystery novel (the other is Richard Hoyt’s Siskiyou (a.k.a. The Siskiyou Two-Step) which has a detective going down the white water rapids of a river atop the nude body of a dead young woman. By the way, Hoyt is also well worth checking out if you get the chance, especially his John Denson mysteries.
In Devil Red, the boys have a mission to complete. A local widow lady has been mugged by two local bad-asses who steal $84 from her and then break her arm. Since no one witnessed the event, it is her word against theirs, so the police do nothing. Hap and Leonard pay these boys a visit and violence happens, resulting in the two miscreants having their kneecaps busted and hand broken and $100 taken back. Hap begins to have doubts about whether they are any better than the two they have just beaten. Leonard is the more practical of the two and fears that his brother in arms may be losing it. This, of course, results in verbal sparring. When the bad-asses show up with guns, it gets worse and Hap is virtually useless in the confrontation.
They soon find themselves helping an old woman whose son has been killed. They do research and tumble onto a possible serial killer who leaves a red devil head symbol behind at each killing. These symbols have been appearing for years and cover a large area of the country.
Along the way, they piss more than a few people off and find themselves face-to-face with Vanilla Ride again. Vanilla has a connection to Devil Red and wants to see some loose ends taken care of. Hap and Leonard are afraid that they may be the loose ends.
All in all this is a fun and interesting book. It reads fast and furious with dialogue and violence flowing freely. All the Hap and Leonard stories are about the friendship and brotherhood of two similar and disparate characters. The banter, wild as it is, is sometimes the best thing in the book and the plot sort of detracts from it. My favorite portion deals with an exchange between Hap, Leonard, their employer Marvin and Brett all being the three musketeers. Marvin wants no part of that. They offer the position of third musketeer to Brett who says that she would rather be a Mousketeer, which excites Hap’s libido and imagination.
Hyenas is a novella published by Subterranean Press which I have been neglectful in not reviewing previously. This one begins with Leonard tossed in jail for a bar fight which he did not start. It turns out the fight was instigated by Kelly Smith who was looking for a couple of bruisers to try and get his brother Donnie out of a friendship that he felt was destructive. Unfortunately he chose the wrong boys to start the fight, but soon hooks up with Hap and Leonard to take on the task.
The brother has gotten in with a bad crowd, the kind that gets you in the deep slammer if not dead. They are looking for a driver for a bank job and he is the chosen one. But he does not realize that in the end it is easier to divide the loot if there is one less in the pie.
As above, this is another story of brotherhood and family (genetic and acquired) from these two twins of different mothers and circumstances.
It reads fast and at 83 pages is just too short. To supplement the book, Joe has added the short story “The Boy Who Was Invisible” which features Hap when he was in high school. While friendship is at the core of this story also, it is not the central focus. Sometimes the little acts or omissions can carry strong feelings. The boy in the title is bullied and pushed around until he is befriended by Hap one day. But even Hap is not sure he wants to be a friend as it is not a popular thing to do. From conversations I have had with Joe, I know this story has some basis in an actual event from his youth which makes it even more powerful.
There was a long break (2001 to 2009) before we had a new Hap and Leonard. Now we have two this year alone. Great things lie ahead.