Raylan, by Elmore Leonard

This 2012 novel is a disappointment. Is it really a novel, in fact? It reads more like three interconnected novellas. In fact, I was not intending to comment on it, but…after all, Elmore Leonard is Elmore Leonard.

   This is the latest story about sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. The latest three stories. The first is about a nurse who carves out people’s kidneys, and holds the body part for ransom. The second concerns a ruthless female coal mine executive who handles environmental and community complaints. The third is about a Butler student coed who is a wiz at poker, and beats all the boys at their game. The book’s unity sems to stem from the fact that these three subjects of Raylan’s attention are all women. Smart women. And villainous women in the first two cases.

   What the work does is explore three different backgrounds in three different stories: the medical industry, the coal mining industry, and poker playing. The coal mining company is the main target of Leonard, as he exposes its indifference to both the environmental impact of coal mining and the negative economic effect of lost jobs. Viewed much more favorably is the poker playing industry, since Raylan is intrigued by the utterly frank and self-confident Jackie Nevada.

   Wait, there is also Delroy Lewis, an ex-convict who seeks revenge for being kicked out of a Florida town by Raylan in a previous case. We meet him running a team of three female bank robbers. They have nothing to do with Raylan’s three assignments, except Jackie Nevada is introduced when she is wrongly suspected as one of the three female bank robbers.

   Like any Leonard work, this one keeps moving. But it is as if Leonard no longer finds it easy to stretch out his tale with complexities, whether moral complexities or criminal complexities. So he puts three simpler tales together to produce one book. Which is not uncommon—see Graham Greene—for authors getting on in years and finding their imagination failing.

   What is particular regretful is that Raylan himself has no depth, and is not alive on these pages. He faces no conflicting motives, no moral issues, no capable rival to challenge either his actions or his thinking. He is simply reacting, going through the motions. He is known to be easy-going, but he is too easy-going here, even with some of the bad people. He has no impact on anyone, until he shoots one person at the end.

   Other minor characters pop up for amusing or narrative reasons. They include a black driver, a company yes-man, two bumbling brothers, their old drug baron father, and a millionaire poker fan. Some are killed, and the others flame up and are easily forgotten.

   Of course, Leonard may revert to form in his next work and create interesting and complex situations, but right now I would not be willing to bet on it. Even though I wish it would happen, for he has long created interesting people involved in the complex world of criminal activity. (October 2013)

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