I’d like to talk about Raylan Givens, who might be Elmore Leonard’s favorite recurring character. He’s written quite a few recurring characters and most of them get a novel or two and a maybe a short story, but Raylan gets three novels (including the last novel that Leonard wrote), a novella and the Justified TV series. I think that Raylan is so endearing because there’s a simplicity to him. He’s a literal cowboy cop, complete with the Stetson, he has his own sense of honor and a dry sort of frontier wit — and he’s got a temper and he’s very, very violent. You can usually figure out what Raylan will do in most situations and it will probably be exciting. Like a lot of Leonard’s characters, he’s a US Marshal, which gives him a reason to go after bad guys. His back story, about growing up dirt poor in Harlan County, Kentucky, adds another edge to him and a distinct regional flavor. All in all, he’s a cool character and the fact that he wins the numerous gunfights he gets into makes him even more appealing.
But what a lot of Justified fans don’t realize is that Raylan Givens starts out as a sort of buffoon. His appearance, 1993’s Pronto, has Raylan appearing maybe one-third of the way through the story as the marshal in charge of an elderly Miami bookie who flees Miami and escapes to Italy. He’s not nearly as cool as Timothy Olyphant is in Justified. For one thing, he’s a bit older with a divorced wife and two kids who he loves and misses. His country ways lead everyone to make fun of him and the bookie easily gives him the slip and escapes — twice. Then a bunch of mobsters, including a nasty Italian-born enforcer called the Zip, are sent up against him and they think he’s a joke as well. But soon enough, Raylan starts getting into gunfights and he keeps winning them. He destroys all the mobsters sent his way, eventually getting into the climactic showdown with the Zip back in Miami (which is the opening scene of the Justified TV series). Raylan’s skill could stem from the fact that he was a firearms instructor and taught others to shoot, but it’s also because he can handle killing people very well. Unlike a lot of other Leonard characters, like the protagonist of Glitz, blowing away criminals doesn’t really sit on his conscience.
Leonard’s last novel, Raylan, sort of continues that theme. Leonard was helping with the show Justified and got a bunch of ideas for new stories. He wrote the novel, which ended up inspiring a good part of the second and third season of Justified. Reading the book after watching the show is an odd experience, as you can see similar characters doing different things and the show even uses some of Leonard’s great dialogue. Luckily, Raylan is still a fantastic book and can be enjoyed with or without Justified. One of the major themes, which the show rarely examines, is that Raylan’s homicidal tendencies are more than a little freaky when you think about them. He’s good at killing and it starts to sort of bother him, especially after he guns down a woman. The woman was a sleazy nurse trying to harvest his organs, but the death still affects Raylan. The novel concludes with a criminal coming after Raylan while he’s hanging out with a college age gambler named Jackie Nevada (and I hope she shows up in Justified, as she’s a cool character). He naturally kills the criminal right in front of Jackie and she’s pretty upset that the guy she likes is so good at shooting people. The novel ends with Jackie and Raylan comparing Raylan to the monster in Young Frankenstein singing ‘oh, sweet mystery of life, I’ve found you!’ and it’s handy way to sum up Raylan the monster and Raylan the man.
I think Justified will ensure that Raylan Givens is wearing his cowboy hat and killing criminals for a long time to come — and I’m glad of that. As long as they stick to Leonard’s vision, I doubt the show can do wrong.