Timothy Olyphant stars as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in...

Timothy Olyphant stars as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the FX series "Justified." Olyphant is nominated for lead actor in a drama series. Credit: FX

RAYLAN by Elmore Leonard. William Morrow, 263 pp., $26.99.


It is, of course, going to be difficult for fans of the FX cable network series "Justified" to read Elmore Leonard's new novel, "Raylan," without seeing and hearing actor Timothy Olyphant every time its title character saunters into the story, Stetson tilted forward, to coolly inspect another mangled corpse. It's almost as if Leonard created Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in his 1993 novel, "Pronto," for the sole purpose of having the persona ready for Olyphant to slip on as comfortably as a used Windbreaker almost 20 years later.

Still, there are worse things than having Olyphant's sloe-eyed wariness and dry-eyed resolve dominate one's impression of Givens, precisely because it's a composite drawing you could make from just reading the book, whether you've seen the first two seasons of "Justified" or not. And given the way the narrative elements of "Raylan" bounce and jostle around the book like loose items in a trunk, it's just as well that Olyphant's image is around to serve as a unifying element to Leonard's spikier-than-usual comedic mayhem.

With Leonard at the controls, Deputy Givens' home turf of Harlan County, Ky., seems even more fraught with Wild West savagery and itchy-fingered menace than it does on TV. Begin with the couple who conspire to remove a drug dealer's kidneys and hold them for ransom. You'd think, though, that anyone smart enough to know how to remove kidneys would know better than to try to take them out of a federal lawman, especially one as precise with a firearm as Raylan. Yet, as always, Leonard's uncannily keen ear for lowlife argot and his offhandedly droll eye for baseline avarice make the improbable feel plausible.

In his "Ten Rules of Writing," Leonard advises writers to keep the descriptions to a minimum and to let the dialogue do the work. Any page of "Raylan" would suffice as an object lesson. Consider how another Kentucky-born marshal ("fifty-five . . . slim, about five-ten, hair cut short around a tan bald crown") sums up his life story to Raylan:

"Fourteen I knew everything, shaved my head to become a hundred-and-thirty-pound white supremacist. Before I got my swastika tats, I got tired of getting beat up by these grown neo-Nazis dumber'n stones . . . reversed my field, entered a seminary to become a brother, not a priest, a brother. Play softball, or walk around with my hands in the sleeves of the habit thinking of girls. I quit, went to UK, joined the marshals and married my wife, Julie, twenty-seven years now. We have three boys wanderin' the earth, good guys, smart, three-point-fives or better."

You wish most memoirs were as vivid or as thorough as these terse lines. On the page, it seems haphazard. Read aloud, it flows like a brook. Either way, it comes across as being so casually achieved that you think you can imitate it. Guess what? You can't. Of such idiomatic American word jazz, Elmore Leonard is an undisputed master.

The second subplot is a leaner, meaner version of a story arc from last season's "Justified," in which a sexy coal company executive uses fair and (mostly) foul means to acquire a mountain rightfully owned by a genial criminal dynasty. At one point, she shoots at point-blank range a retired miner who lost his pond to coal dust and his house to a boulder rolled on her orders by Raylan's friendly nemesis and boyhood chum Boyd Crowder, whom she also orders to take credit for the murder. Into this narrative arc slips yet another tale of a whip-smart, button-cute 20-something professional gambler who is at first mistaken for being part of a trio of stoner strippers recruited to rob banks.

Leonard's deliberately baggy way with plotting, which blithely kept you on edge in his previous books, is more of a liability in "Raylan." Things happen faster here than they do on TV and yet, somehow, you find yourself missing the weirder nuances and colorful details that Leonard's dialogue, however quirky and enjoyable, can't convey on its own. Usually, they say you have to watch the series to better appreciate the book. In "Raylan's" case, you're better off seeing the book -- and its two predecessors, "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap" -- as introductions to one of the best shows on television.


EXCERPT: "Raylan" by Elmore Leonard


Chapter One

Raylan Givens was holding a federal warrant to serve on a man in the marijuana trade known as Angel Arenas, forty-seven, born in the U.S. but 100 percent of him Hispanic.

"I met him," Raylan said, "the time I was on court duty in Miami and he was up for selling khat. That Arab plant you chew on and get high."

"Just medium high," Rachel Brooks said, in the front seat of the SUV, Raylan driving, early morning sun showing behind them. "Khat's just catchin' on, grown in California, big in San Diego among real Africans."

"You buy any, you want to know it was picked that morning," Raylan said. "It gives you a high for the day and that's it."

"I have some friends," Rachel said, "like to chew it now and then. They never get silly, have fun with it. They just seem to mellow out."

"Get dreamy," Raylan said.

"What'd Angel go down for?"

"Thirty-six months out of forty and went back to selling weed. Violated his parole. He was supposed to have made a deal through that Rastafarian ran the Church?"

"Temple of the Cool and Beautiful J.C.," Rachel said. "Israel Fendi, with the dreads, Ethiopian by way of Jamaica. Was he in the deal?"

"Never went near it. But somebody put the stuff on Angel, some doper lookin' for a plea deal. Swears Angel was taking delivery last night. I doubt we walk in and find Angel sittin' on it."

From the backseat they heard Tim Gutterson say, "He's looking at two hundred and forty months this time." Tim going through a file folder of Angel Arenas photos came to a mug shot.

"Look at that grin. Nothing about him armed and dangerous."

"He never packs," Raylan said, "that I know of. Or has gun thugs hangin' around."

The SUV was traveling through a bottom section of East Kentucky, creeping along behind the state troopers' radio cars, following a lake that looked more like a river looping around on its way down past the Tennessee line. A few minutes shy of 6:00 a.m. they pulled up to the Cumberland Inn.

The state troopers, four of them, watched Raylan and his crew slip on Kevlar vests, which they wore underneath their U.S. marshal jackets, and watched them check their sidearms. Raylan told the officers he didn't expect Angel would resist, but you never knew for sure. He said, "You hear gunfire come runnin', all right?"

One of the troopers said, "You want, we'll bust in the door for you."

"You're dyin' to," Raylan said. "I thought I'd stop by the desk and get a key."

The troopers got a kick out of this marshal, at one time a coal miner from Harlan County but sounded like a lawman, his attitude about his job. This morning they watched him enter a fugitive felon's motel room without drawing his gun.

There wasn't a sound but the hum of air-conditioning. Sunlight from the windows lay on the king-size bed, unmade but thrown together, the spread pulled up over bedding and pillows. Raylan turned to Rachel and nodded to the bed. Now he stepped over to the bathroom door, not closed all the way, listened and then shoved it open.

Angel Arenas's head rested against the curved end of the bathtub, his hair floating in water that came past his chin, his eyes closed, his body stretched out naked in a tub filled close to the brim with bits of ice in water turning pink.

Raylan said, "Angel ... ?" Got no response and kneeled at the tub to feel Angel's throat for a pulse. "He's freezing to death but still breathing."

Behind him he heard Rachel say, "Raylan, the bed's full of blood. Like he was killin' chickens in there." And heard her say, "Oh my God," sucking in her breath as she saw Angel.

Raylan turned the knob to let the water run out, lowering it around Angel, his belly becoming an island in the tub of ice water, blood showing in two places on the island.

"He had something done to him," Raylan said. "He's got like staples closing up what look like wounds. Or was he operated on?"

"Somebody shot him," Tim said.

"I don't think so," Raylan said, staring at the two incisions stapled closed.

Rachel said, "That's how they did my mother last year, at UK Medical. Made one entry below the ribs and the other under her belly button. I asked her why they did it there 'stead of around through her back."

Tim said, "You gonna tell us what the operation was?"

"They took out her kidneys," Rachel said. "Both of 'em, and she got an almost new pair the same day, from a child who'd drowned."

They wrapped Angel in a blanket, carried him into the bedroom and laid him on the spread, the man shuddering, trying to breathe. His eyes closed he said to Raylan staring at him, "What happen to me?"

"You're here makin' a deal?"

Angel hesitated. "Two guys I know, growers. We have a drink--"

"And you end up in the tub," Raylan said. "How much you pay them?"

"Is none of your business."

"They left the weed?"

"What you see," Angel said.

"There isn't any here."

Angel's eyes came open. "I bought a hundred pounds, twenty-two thousand dollar. I saw it, I tried some."

"You got taken," Raylan said. "They put you out and left with the swag and the weed."

Now his eyes closed and he said, "Man, I'm in pain," his hands under the blanket feeling his stomach. "What did they take out of me?"

Excerpt from "Raylan" posted with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2012 by Elmore Leonard.

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