When Graham Yost set out to create the television series Justified for FX, he did two big things right.
One, he cast Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.
And two, he decided to keep the show as close as possible in spirit and style to the work of the master crime writer Elmore Leonard, who created Givens in the first place.
Did I mention Timothy Olyphant?
But my other crush (literary, of course), on Leonard, goes back much further. He's simply one of the best writers of crime fiction ever, always hitting that sweet dark spot where crisp patter, steamy sexuality, explosive violence and honor among thieves come together. Pared down, propulsive and unpredictable, Leonard's novels are populated by characters who are the walking definition of badass cool.
His latest — he has published 45 novels, starting with The Bounty Hunters in 1953 — is Raylan. It's the third novel to feature Givens, after Pronto in 1993 and Riding the Rap in 1995. The most direct inspiration for Justified was the 2004 novella Fire in the Hole, which returned Raylan to his home turf of Harlan County, Kentucky, after a posting in Miami. Much of the plotline of the first season of the critically acclaimed TV series was borrowed from the novella. (Its third season started Jan. 17.)
The cover of Raylan is dominated by a photo of Olyphant: gun, badge, hat shadowing poker face. That cheerful cashing in on the show's success extends to the story collection in which Fire in the Hole first appeared, When the Women Come Out to Dance. It has been retitled Fire in the Hole and published in a new edition with a squib about Justified on the cover that also appears on new paperbacks of Pronto and Riding the Rap.
Leonard has seen more than two dozen of his books made into films and TV shows, starting with the 1957 film of 3:10 to Yuma. (He wrote Westerns before he began writing contemporary crime fiction, and the Givens books marry the two genres.) He has been quite involved with Justified, with writing credits for more than 20 of the episodes and executive producer status; Yost gave staffers bracelets etched with "WWED?" for "What would Elmore do?"
But in Raylan, whose dedication reads "For Graham and Tim," Leonard reminds us that this character still belongs to him. Some of the characters from the TV series appear, but they're not exactly the same; nor is Raylan's life. Leonard borrows a few plot points, tweaks others and ignores some wholesale — for example, the nefarious brothers Coover and Dickie have a different last name and a different crime-boss parent. Instead of their mother, Mags Bennett (played on TV by the magnificent Margo Martindale), they're working for their father, marijuana kingpin Pervis Crowe, a sinister good old boy who reminds Raylan that he used to market moonshine made by Raylan's granddaddy.
Leonard has said in recent interviews that when he finished the manuscript of Raylan he offered it to the Justified writers and told them to "hang it up and strip it for parts." But trying to parse similarities and differences between book and series is beside the point; better to see each as a Raylan Givens alternate universe.
What's consistent in both mediums is Raylan himself, an inspired melding of Old West gunslinger and tough-guy modern crime fighter. He's Shane with a sex life, a sense of humor and a Glock instead of a six-shooter.
He needs that Glock in this novel, where bad guys pop up almost as often as you turn the page. It kicks off with a chilly shock: Raylan and a team of officers go to arrest a drug dealer named Angel and find him in his motel room's bathtub, awash in pink-tinged ice water, his kidneys removed with surgical precision and his attitude bad. The kicker: In ICU, Angel receives a ransom fax offering to sell his kidneys back to him for a hundred grand.
The organ thieves are just one of several intertwined plotlines in Raylan. The marshal's longtime frenemy Boyd Crowder turns up working for a ruthless coal company executive named Carol Conlan, who wants to strip down both a local mountaintop and Raylan. As always, Boyd's loyalties are hard to predict.
A wealthy horse breeder named Harry Burgoyne, who keeps popping up in various plotlines, also cozies up to one involving the lovely Jackie Nevada, a runaway university student and ace poker player. Of course there are the three strippers who rob banks, and the 6-foot-6 drag queen with a tall grudge, and, well, we're in Leonard land.
Raylan reads as if Leonard had a blast writing it. It's more episodic than most of his novels, but those subplots still intersect when you least expect it, and the dialogue is as deliciously dry as the first martini of the night.
And Raylan is, as always, lightning fast with wisecrack and gun. Here's his response when a protester challenges him to fight after a meeting:
" 'You don't see me right away,' Raylan said, 'practice falling down until I get here.' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft @tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.