"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Raylan Givens, Western hero

Quick on the draw

We first meet Raylan Givens of the US Marshals Service in the 1993 Elmore Leonard novel Pronto.


The novel starts with 66-year-old Harry Arno, who runs a sports book in Miami Beach, and his troubles with the mob. But very soon Raylan appears to take over as central character and hero of the book. The beginning and ending are set in Miami, home of fat Mafioso Jimmy Capotorto and his heavies, the right hand man Tommy Bucks, known as the Zip, and young muscleman Nicky Testa. They decide that Harry has been skimming on them and Jimmy puts out a contract on him. Harry is (just about) ahead of them and skips out (also skipping out on Marshal Raylan’s protective custody) to Italy where he was in World War II.
The middle part of the novel is set in Rapallo, down the Mediterranean coast from Genoa. There, the mobsters catch up with Harry, recruit local thugs and set about eliminating him. But that’s when Raylan arrives too, on a mission to bring Harry back to face his bail bond, and it’s a question of who can shoot quickest and straightest.

For this is essentially a Western. I have written elsewhere about the crossover between hard-boiled crime fiction and the Western genres and the qualities they share. As Robert B Parker, who wrote both, said, quoting Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, “We deal in in lead, friend.” And Raylan Givens is more than a touch a Western hero. With his Kentucky roots, cowboy boots, Harry Truman Stetson and silver plated revolver, and his laconic, tough manner, Raylan Givens steps straight out of a Western novel.

Luckily, on page 227 Harry’s squeeze Joyce, who is fast becoming Raylan’s, asks about his background and Raylan gives a potted history. Very useful for Raylanists to get a bit of background.

I grew up in coal camps, chewed tobacco when I was twelve. Went to Evarts High and played football, our archrival being Harlan Green Dragons. What else you want to know? I’ve worked deep mines, wildcat mines – abandoned ones where you go back in and scratch for any coal left – and I’ve stripped... Stripping we’d cut the top off a hill and dig out the coal, mess up the countryside … My mom put her foot down, wouldn’t let me work for those people. Let’s see, I walked a picket line for over a year when we struck Duke Power. Learned about company gun thugs. During that same time my dad died of black lung and high blood pressure. My mom said, ‘That’s enough.’ Her brother was shot and killed during the strike. We picked up and moved to Detroit, Michigan. I went to Wayne State University, graduated, and joined the Marshals Service. What else do you want to know?

See? That’s a lot of Raylan info in one paragraph.

The final showdown between Raylan and Tommy Bucks is pure Western. Raylan has given Tommy 24 hours to get out of town or he’ll shoot him…

Riding the Rap

We next meet Raylan Givens in a 1995 novel, Riding the Rap, which takes the action on from a year after Rapallo. This time Harry is kidnaped by a Miami lowlife in league with a Puerto Rican killer and a Bahamian fixer. The kidnapers are incompetent fools but still dangerous for all that. Harry is lured to his doom by a pretty psychic, the Reverend Dawn Navarro, and there is a fair bit of mumbo-jumbo as Dawn predicts this and that. Actually, Raylan is a tiny bit on the psychic side. He ‘knows’ things on a hunch basis.
Everything isn’t sweetness and light between Raylan and Joyce now. They’re talking like a married couple with the seven year itch already. Will Joyce go back to Harry? She could.

The Western aspect is played up a bit in this book. There’s a specific reference to Hang ‘em High on page 277 as Raylan considers himself in the tradition of US marshals bringing in fugitives for Judge Parker. He thinks of growing a mustache, “a big one that would droop properly and go well with his hat.” The showdown gunfight is gently mocked twice as Raylan stands waiting to draw against the bad guys. Another time the mocking is less gentle as two of the lowlifes face off in a quick draw that ends with one of them in the deep end of a scummy swimming pool, and not doing the breast-stroke.

Fire in the Hole

In 2001 Raylan returned in a short story, Fire in the Hole, first published as an e-book then collected in 2003 in the volume Fire in the Hole and Other Stories. It’s quite a long short story, if you see what I mean, so you almost think it’s another Raylan novel. This time Harry doesn’t appear and Joyce only gets a passing mention. Time has clearly moved on and Raylan must be 50 by now. He’s still working for the Marshals Service but up in Kentucky. Miami is a thing of the past.
The bad guys, Miami and Italian mobsters in the first story, Florida lowlifes and a clairvoyant in the second, are now dumbass skinhead nazis in the backwoods with a collective IQ lower than the shoe size of any one of them. They are led by Boyd Crowder, a particularly poisonous bit of work, who enjoys blowing up a ‘church’, the Temple of the Cool and Beautiful JC, with a RPG. He also has a short way with those he suspects might be informers (even if they aren’t) which involves an AK47.

This is another very Western story – actually even more so because its lack of urban setting – and Raylan duly faces down various scumbags with the threat of drawing on them, just standing there in his boots with fancy wingtips with his Stetson pulled down just a little over one eye.

Raylan hits it off with Ava Crowder, the widow of badman Boyd’s brother. There’s a reason she’s a widow. She shot her husband with a deer rifle while he was eating his dinner and when you read about the brothers you do rather feel, who can blame her? There’s a good shoot-out at the end, Raylan/Boyd this time, and I guess you can guess who wins in the final showdown.


We next meet Raylan in print in the 2012 novel Raylan. Well, I say novel: really it’s three novellas tacked together with three separate plots and some of the characters overlapping but some new. The first hundred pages or so is devoted to a gruesome story of how a horrible transplant nurse hires two dumb hicks to help her remove kidneys from people and sell them back to them. This woman is seriously nasty and indeed Leonard does a rather good line in memorably evil dames. The final scene of this part, when Raylan himself comes within a whisker of having his own kidneys removed but survives to participate in a final bloody shoot-out, is especially grisly.
Raylan must be getting near retirement by now. We know from Pronto (1993) that he was born sometime in the mid-1950s, so he must be close to 60 now. Still, we don’t want to be too literal about it.

He admits on page 90 to having shot seven people. Counting his victims in Pronto (which tells of the first person he shot, an Italian gangster), Riding the Rap and Fire in the Hole we don’t get to seven so some shootings have been omitted in the telling.

Suddenly, on page 106, we are puzzled to find Boyd Crowder appear. Boyd had been shot plumb in the middle by Raylan in Fire in the Hole. Yet here he is brought back to life. We are told that Raylan’s shot missed his vital organs by a millimeter and Boyd recovered. He is now living with Ava and  working for another poisonous woman, this time the coal company fixer Carol Conlan, about as nasty a piece of work as you would ever want to meet. You kinda feel like cheering when she finally comes to the end of her road. The new theme is the exploitative practices of the coal companies, raping the land and screwing the people in every way they can. We also meet various marijuana growers and dealers as well as Mr. Burgoyne, another Harry, millionaire Kentucky racehorse owner. Weed seems to have replaced coal (and complements moonshine) as the staple earner in the hills.

On page 172 a new plot begins (presumably because this is not exactly a novelization of the by now successful Justified TV series but let’s say is inspired by it and provides grist for the mill of future series) and this one concerns a family called Nevada, bookmaker father Reno and his stepdaughter, whom he wanted to call Sierra but who finally got named more prosaically Rachel and generally called Jackie. Jackie is a poker player, still in college but already good enough to play the pros. She drops twenty grand at a no-limit game and proceeds to make it up (and more) with the help of Harry Burgoyne. The principal lowlife here is Delroy Lewis, whom we had met in Pronto, up from Florida. He takes against Raylan and wants to set up a quick-draw showdown in a saloon.

For all through these three linked stories the Wild West is ever-present. There’s an amusing reference to Leonard’s own Western work on page 59 when the heavy is named Bob Valdez and he sends a message to Raylan that ‘Valdez is coming’. There is a character (a middle-aged one) called Billy the Kid in part 2. Raylan gets a free room over a bar in return for bouncer duties and says that he “lives over a saloon”. Western references abound.

So that’s Raylan Givens in print. Read the stories in this order: Pronto, Riding the Rap, Fire in the Hole, Raylan. You’ll enjoy them all.

Then you can watch Justified.


Sony Pictures’ Justified premiered in March 2010. It was developed and written by Canadian Graham Yost who had written the action movies Speed, Broken Arrow and Hard Rain, as well as the TV series Boomtown, an LA police procedural. Four more series followed and a sixth, the last, is scheduled.
Graham Yost
Justified is very good. Its acting is excellent, especially Timothy Olyphant in the lead role as Raylan, and the direction (no fewer than 18 different directors) and writing also noticeably top quality. Yost and his team have understood very well the Western tone of the character and books and that crossover I talked about. Ostensibly a contemporary crime series, it has more than a little Western about it. They both deal in lead, friend. Elmore Leonard is billed as executive producer.

Right from the get-go the opening titles and credits are just great, with the theme song Long Hard Times to Come, performed by the NYC-based Gangstagrass and produced by Rench, featuring rapper T.O.N.E-z, Matt Check on banjo, Gerald Menke on resonator guitar, and Jason Cade on fiddle. The song was nominated for a 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. Along with the 70s grainy color opening shots it gives a Sopranos-ish/The Wire-style vibe, but with added moonshine. And the way the F of JUSTIFIED dips on the final opening title shot is just magic.
Series 1 concentrates on the Crowder clan. Pronto and Riding the Rap seem to have been discarded; instead of Miami it’s all set in Harlan County, Kentucky, an impoverished backwoods land of out-of-work former coal miners, weed-growers, White supremacists and moonshiners. Some episodes from the early books are taken and transposed to Kentucky, such as the Riding the Rap story of Miami Harry (now a Kentucky bookmaker Arnold Pinter) being kidnaped in Series 1/Episode 3, or Raylan facing down the two gun thugs as they get out of their car and separate, from Pronto, in 1/4.
Raylan says he has no kids so I don’t know what happened to Ricky and Randy, maybe they got sent to an orphanage, and he kinda gets back with ex-wife court reporter Winona (Natalie Zea), having saved her loser realtor husband Gary (William Ragsdale) from the bad guys. But first he dallies with Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter). There’s no shortage of goings-on.

Raylan’s daddy is introduced, especially in 1/5, the less than proper Arlo (Raymond J Barry) and his long-suffering, gun-totin’ wife Helen (Linda Gehringer), who is later to come to a sticky end. The triangular relationship between them is in fact very well handled.

The acting is excellent. Ray McKinnon from Deadwood is a first-class though short-lived hitman in 1/7. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss Art Mullen is very convincing (with a framed poster of the movie Tombstone on his wall), and the Crowders are very good. Walton Goggins is Boyd, David Meunier is Johnny and MC Gainey is the patriarch. Goggins and Gainey get the excellent mix of hillbilly dumbness and arch cunning.

Now the Bennett clan rule the Harlan roost. They are a bunch of backwoods lowlifes presided over by the seriously horrible Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who reminds me a bit of Rusty Schwimmer’s Big Rump Kate in Broken Trail). Mags, a TV creation but worthy of Leonard, is a hillbilly mafia boss dispensing death, hooch and weed at her whim. She has a dumb-ox son, Coover (Brad William Henke), a runty one, Dickie (Jeremy Davies) and a corrupt police chief one, Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor).
There are various plot twists and turns. The religion that Boyd got in jail doesn’t last. Raylan gets back together unofficially with his ex, Winona, and his dad Arlo gets deeper into crime. Bodies disappear into mineshafts, there are shotgun murders and everything tells you that Harlan County is most definitely where you don’t want to be. With the exception of Raylan’s Marshal boss Art, most of the characters come across as pretty loathsome.

There is a series of villains as the seasons progress. Blond gay Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) is particularly gruesome (and has a kind of derringer) and Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) too. They are Detroit mob, or offshoots from it. I thought Mr. Limehouse the butcher an especially successful creation and the actor first class (Mykelti Williamson). None of these characters are in any Elmore Leonard book but they are all still very good on TV.

In series 3, episode 2, Art talks about Bass Reeves and says, “Good luck finding a movie about him!” Who was Bass Reeves? Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. He fled to Indian Territory during the Civil War and lived with Cherokee, Seminole and Creek Indians, whose languages he learned. In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker appointed James F Fagan as US marshal and told him to hire 200 deputy marshals. In fiction, among these were Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘em High and John Wayne/Jeff Bridges in the True Grits. In fact, one of the 200 was Bass Reeves, who worked Indian Territory as deputy US marshal for thirty-two years. When he retired in 1907, he claimed to have brought in 3000 felons, among them some of the worst criminals of the time. Once he had to arrest his own son. He was never wounded in all that time, though he had his hat and belt shot off on different occasions. He died of Bright’s disease in 1910. Actually, as if in response to Art’s comment, in 2010 the film Bass Reeves came out, made by Ponderosa Productions of San Antonio. Art says that “Somebody needs to tell Denzel that story” and Morgan Freeman also expressed an interest but in fact Bass was played by James A House.
Bass Reeves

Raylan’s maverick approach is played up. He seems to be half the time under suspension or inquiry. He gets wonderful support from Art, far more than he deserves, really, though as Raylan is so good at closing cases (quite often permanently), I guess Art sees the value.
Raylan uses the Lincoln town car throughout. He even has it repaired between series when he wrecks it. I rather liked the way that, in the books, he used a succession of vehicles the Marshals Service had acquired, usually good ones.

Some of the episode titles are Western, too, such as The Gunfighter (3/1), The Hole in the Wall (4/1) or Outlaw (4/8).

So far I have only seen series 1 – 4 (I bought the boxed set) but am looking forward to the last two.

In any case, through Pronto, Riding the Rap, Fire in the Hole, Raylan and Justified, Raylan Givens is one of the great cowboys.

1 comment:

  1. For my money, the best series on TV right now.

    Jim Cornelius