Hyenas by Joe R Lansdale is another of these novellas published by Subterranean Press (2011). It’s an elegant design with some nifty jacket art by Glen Orbik so, in theory, we’re on to another winner. After all, under normal circumstances, you can’t go wrong with a Hap & Leonard story, now can you? Well, here’s the rub. This is the tenth outing for the dynamic duo, so those of us who have read them all can begin to see patterns. We know you have the set-up when our defenders of the innocent will acquire a “job” of some kind. This will usually involve the use of moderate violence. Whichever one is doling out the beating or “punishment” will usually only want to make an appeal to reason. After all, they know from experience most bears always back away when struck a few time with a baseball bat. Except, of course, those pesky bears can lurk in the woods for an hour or so, and come on their own little home visit to ask for revenge. The rest of the story is usually an extended discussion on the merits of a hat as a form of disguise or whether success in fighting is down to physical size or skill. Because our two heroes are expected to return for another adventure, they have to emerge the winners in this pissing competition or it’s declared an honourable draw with both sides walking away to lick their wounds and screw their partners until blissful sleep overtakes them.
As a formula, there’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre, but we Lansdale fans forgive structural limitations because we find the author amusing. Yes, there will be bones broken and bullets flying, but it’s all done in the best possible taste, mojo style. In other words, Lansdale makes even the grimmest of stories fun by the banter and repartee between the odd couple, their loved ones and those with whom they contend.
Except Hyenas is a little thin. That’s not thinness in terms of length, you understand. We know from the size of the book this is not one of the longest stories ever written. But the fabric of the narrative is somewhat perfunctory. We have one of the standard plots, but the Lansdale touch seems less evident this time round. There are one or two good lines which provoked a smile but, frankly, not enough of them to sustain this “thin” story. Normally, Lansdale distracts the reader with a mass of irrelevant detail. This is a little bald, even without the hat joke.
I suspect the good folk at Subterranean Press had their doubts because the slim volume is padded out with a short story. “The Boy Who Became Invisible” is a Hap solo — in the old pun sense of him being so lowdown, he’s like a snake. I won’t spoil this short short story by talking about the plot but, like all casual cruelty between peers, it doesn’t show anyone in a good light. I suppose it does shed a sliver of light on how Hap came to be the adult he is, but I’m not convinced. Worse, I’m not convinced the inclusion of this story adds real value to the book. So, I’m in the slightly unusual position of advising people to wait for a novella to be republished in a collection where it will hopefully be a better value purchase. Of course all true Lansdale fans will buy the first edition anyway, but the rest of you might pause before buying. The early Hap & Leonard novels are wonderful. If you haven’t already read them, start with Mucho Mojo.
For those of you who don’t immediately go on to read the comments to these reviews, I have imported the following from the Master himself,
“Just for the record, I insisted the story be included so no one would mistake this for a novel, or hoped they wouldn’t. As to the quality, that is of course the reader’s judgement, but I didn’t want that put on Subterranean Press. That was my idea, and not for the reason you give.”
So now we know. Thanks for that clarification and apologies for any confusion to the folk at Subterranean Press.
The thing about chalk and cheese is that, if you get cheese that’s neither too soft nor too hard, you can use both substances to write on one of those old school blackboards. Now I know you’re thinking the cheese is just going to leave a greasy track like a snail who’s developed diarrhoea after eating a fatty beef patty but, in the right light, you’ll still be able to read what you wrote. Perhaps if you used Edam and left some of the paraffin wax protection on, there would be red streaks to show you the way. Never forget both chalk and cheese are useful in their own way. Until one of them gets shot, of course.
There’s this thing about Hap & Leonard novels as assembled by Joe R Lansdale. These guys come as a pair. Well, that’s perhaps not quite the right thing to say since only one of them is gay and they don’t sleep together in that way, if you get my meaning. But, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, “You can’t have one without the other”. It’s like they’re apples and oranges but both fruit. . . No, that doesn’t work well either.
Anyway, Devil Red starts in the usual way with Hap Collins and Leonard Pine debating with each other. The easiest way of understanding these existential discussions is to focus on the essentials. Neither of them has any real sense, yet they’re the most reliable men you could ever hope to meet if your back was to the wall and the wall was thinking of running out on you. They’re the nicest, most gentle and understanding of ruthless men you could ask for in a jam. In this case, they’ve gone to a part of town where even the mice belong to a gang for protection. They’re not wearing a hat and tie (mice don’t usually do that, anyway). Dressed for action not fashion, Marvin and his little old lady client have sent them to break a few bones. It’s a routine job and they’re just the kinda guys to get it done. Except Hap’s got a little PTSD after his shoot-out with Vanilla Ride and the accumulation of all the dead bodies he seems to leave in his wake (that’s the shipping metaphor not the funeral joke). His hands are shaking, he feels ethically challenged, and his reaction time’s sluggish. Even beating on two worthless human beings doesn’t improve his mood.
But once Marvin picks up a rich client who wants a double-homicide investigating, things start to move along fast enough for Hap to loosen up and get back into the swing of things (and not just with a baseball bat). With Leonard a fan of Sherlock Holmes and now inclined to wear a deerstalker hat whenever the game’s afoot (which is actually Shakespeare rather than Conan Doyle, but no-one cares about such trivial details today), they start beating the grass and rattling the bars of as many cages as they can find, hoping someone will give them a clue on whodunnit.
Sadly, this does provoke a shooting but, because Leonard has to come back for the next outing in the series, what with there being no-one in prospect for a Hap & Son sequel, Lansdale has our indefatigable sleuth hooked up to life-support in an ICU until he manages a smile at the end. Of course, shooting Leonard is not something up with which Hap will put. He’s now properly motivated to cut to the chase and find lots of people to kill. There’s just one problem. He doesn’t know who to start shooting. Fortunately, a blast from the past is able to point him in the right direction and vengeance, Texas style, is laid out on the BBQ with plenty of hot chili sauce.
This is Joe Lansdale maintaining the fine run of form he started in Vanilla Ride, producing a genuinely amusing riff on the usually stolid PI tropes. Our two heroes, with a little help from girl-friend and newspaper contacts, crack the case and some heads in their search for the truth, justice and the Texan way. Many die or are wounded on the way, but this has always been the price of admission to a Hap & Leonard novel. Devil Red is definitely worth seeking out and reading.
Humour is one of the more difficult-to-define human reactions. What we may find amusing is influenced by the prevailing culture, the extent to which the situations depicted match our own experiences, and so on. What I can say is that television writers’ attempts to produce common denominator humour for the mass market have largely left me cold. None of the series explicitly billed as “funny” have raised even the faintest of smiles from me. I long ago gave up watching them. This, of course, raises the question of whether any television makes me laugh out loud. The answer is somewhat strange. This week, I have been vastly amused by episodes of “CSI” and “Burn Notice”, both of which in slightly different ways, deal with violence and death. Yet they and other dramatic shows use humour in the traditional way. For example, in the Scottish play (sparing those of you who think it bad luck to speak, write or read the Mac word), we have the scene with the Porter which, by breaking the mood, raises the tempo of tragedy when the murder is discovered. So I find situations or the comments they inspire amusing when they take an unexpected turn. Irony and the absurd make me laugh.
My reading of Lansdale has been on and off over the last thirty years or so. When I first found him back in the early 1980s, I was bowled over. He had a voice I could read for hours. With the 1990s came the Hap and Leonard novels and my joy was complete. But a combination of factors slowly turned me off. He became the primary author for Subterranean Press and, for their mutual profit, the majority of books emerged as more expensive limited editions. This works for a while so long as the quality of the fiction remains high. But with the launch of The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent we began to plumb the underbelly of Lansdale’s published works. No matter how good The Bottoms or A Fine Dark Line, I lost interest. Captains Outrageous had seemed a poor outing for Hap and Leonard. Zeppelins West was, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain silly. I stopped buying.
Yet, it was fond memories of the early Hap and Leonards that tempted me back and, fortunately, Vanilla Ride has proved one of the more amusing books of the last year or so. This is Hap and Leonard meet Sergio Leone in a Spaghetti Western shootout. As with many books of this type, it’s the journey itself that matters rather than the scenery that flashes by on the way. Our two heroes must start at the beginning and arrive at the end relatively unscathed so they can re-emerge in another book. While this removes some level of tension from the central narrative, the monotony of their victories is leavened by the number of bodies left behind. As in Schwarzenegger films like Commando, the invincibility of the heroes is so absurd, it becomes amusing in its own right. We merely wait to see how the author will rescue the deus from the machina. Wrap in the banter between the characters and you have a genuinely entertaining read. It’s not going to impress you as great literature but, having no pretensions to being anything other than the latest Hap and Leonard outing, it’s one of the best of its type and well worth the price of admission.