July 24, 2017

The Hap(pening): a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard"

Hap and Leonard
by Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications (2016)

I have been meandering through Lansdale's extensive works for several years now, and in that time I have come to consider him one of my all-time favorite storytellers. A big reason for that is his Hap and Leonard series of novels, which feature the hijinks of two east Texas ne'er-do-wells, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. But there are not just the novels, but also a smattering of short fiction, which has now been collected in this book from 2016 (a followup collection released in 2017). So I have to wonder if an abbreviated adventure is as satisfying as the novels.

For me, the meat of this collection came in the form of two novellas that had been previously published each on their own. The first, "Hyenas," kicks off with Hap showing up at the local bar to keep Leonard from getting hauled off by the cops after a donnybrook. Leonard's in cuffs, but relatively unscathed compared to the fellas littering the ground like so much tenderized steak. Impressed enough by the whooping, one of the guys hires Hap and Leonard to track down his little brother who has fallen in with a small gang of crooks. Witty banter and gritty brawling galore in this tale, and our heroes wind up much more invested in the younger brother's safety than they had ever anticipated.

The second novella is "Dead Aim," and it has our guys on protection duty once again, only this time it's for a woman who says he is being stalked and abused by her ex-husband. Lansdale's deftness with dialogue shines again, but the tone of the tale is a wee bit darker with things not shaping up as they should at first glance, and Hap and Leonard wind up caught in one more showdown with bloodthirsty types. This one was particularly great because it included Hap's lady love, Brett, who really feels like she turns the duo into a less than holy trinity.

The collection isn't all fisticuffs and gun fights, though. "Death by Chili" offers a bit more humor than most tales, as Hap and Leonard try to figure out how a champion chili cook died. Then there's "The Boy Who Became Invisible" and it's glimpse back and Hap's formative years.

Then there are the stories that are interludes of sorts that complement the existing novels, like "Veil's Visit" which takes place around the time Leonard burned down the crack house next door and includes Andrew Vachss with a coauthor credit, since one of his famous characters shows up at Hap's behest to bail out Leonard.

I'm not sure if it's the kind of book that works so well as an introduction to these characters, as there's a fair bit of winks and nods to what has come before that a newcomer just might not catch on to, but it's not like the stories are impenetrable to a new reader. One of the great things about the series has always been that Hap and Leonard are quickly identifiable and instantly likable. But a new reader should honestly go seek out the first novel, Savage Season, if they want to sample the waters. As for the existing fans and completists out there, this is something they will all want to get their hands on, assuming they haven't done so already.

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