Raylan is far from the best book Elmore Leonard has ever written. In fact, it might be in the bottom third. But what makes it interesting is that many of its ideas formed the basis for the second season of FX’s Justified, a show based on Leonard’s short story “Fire In The Hole,” featuring Justified’s main character, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Thanks to the vagaries of publishing schedules, the book that inspired a season of television is arriving at the same time as the debut of the show’s follow-up season.
Leonard’s occasionally loose plotting flies all over the place in Raylan, as what seems to be the book’s primary conflict is wrapped up by page 105, before the characters head off on a few new, completely disconnected adventures. In some ways, this actually mirrors the way a season of television might develop, with individual episodes providing visceral excitement, and longer plotlines saying something deeper about the Harlan, Kentucky world where the book and show are set. Justified did this to a T, and it’s easy to see the book’s first 100 pages making a pretty solid standalone episode of the show, about a pair of kidney thieves cutting their way through the marijuana trade to get rich quick.
But the last 150 pages ultimately let the book down. Leonard starts out with a story that was a big part of the show: A mining-company flack has come to Harlan to convince the locals that the mining company only wants the best for them, and to convince a local powerhouse to sell valuable property to her. But Leonard tosses in an unnecessary murder, then seems to lose interest halfway through, pivoting instead to put Raylan on the trail of a college-age gambler who seems to have gotten wrapped up in a bank-robbing scheme. The conclusions to both stories are beyond anticlimactic, and the gambler storyline seemingly doesn’t track with the Raylan Leonard previously established.
Raylan is a complicated cultural artifact, because it’s the source material, but the TV show did all this much, much better. It managed the trick of wrapping these standalone adventures into a larger, ongoing story. It found and fleshed out the most interesting characters in Leonard’s outline. It found a consistent voice for characters like Raylan and inveterate-criminal-trying-to-turn-good Boyd Crowder. It’d be impossible to say that Leonard’s versions of the characters aren’t definitive, since he invented them, but the show has realized them so thoroughly that it seems as if Leonard is scrambling to adapt something already adapted from his own work. The usual positives for a Leonard novel—crackerjack dialogue, entertaining side characters—are all here; they’re just searching for a stronger center.