It's only been a month for me but there were eight years between Joe R. Lansdale's sixth check in with Hap and Leonard in 'Captains Outrageous' and his seventh, 'Vanilla Ride'. I liked that last book a lot, but this one feels a lot fresher, as if the author wasn't trying to wrap things up but was ready to have fun with them again. And he does that with a vengeance, this one even bloodier than the last.
As always, Hap and Leonard find themselves on a mission that surely wasn't ever a good idea but was, at least, a good deed, this time for Marvin Hanson. Marvin’s granddaughter Julia, better known as Gadget, is shacked up with her drug dealer boyfriend in a trailer outside No Enterprise, TX, and he wants her back. So our dynamic duo go in without much of a plan but with serious intent. Leonard bounces the head of Tanedrue, that boyfriend, down the trailer's steps and ends up putting a bullet into him. Hap throws a dog out of the window and flushes all the coke down the toilet.
So far, so good. By the time they get back to LaBorde, we're ten chapters and only forty pages down. Lansdale is even leaner and meaner than he used to be and he used to be lean and mean. And with the mission taken care of, we can only wait to find out how this is all going to go pearshaped. After all, it isn't just going to be wine and roses with a couple of hundred pages left. Sure enough, Tanedrue is in trouble with his bosses over all those lost drugs, and the Dixie Mafia decide to take Hap and Leonard down over it.
And, with that big public shootout over, with a whole bunch of people dead in the streets of LaBorde, Hap and Leonard suddenly find themselves talking with the FBI, who offer them a way out of the mess by getting into a bigger one. Apparently, one of the guys they beat up in Tanedrue's trailer turns out to be an undercover FBI agent called Milhouse, working a sting that they screwed up when they took Gadget home. So they have an idea, an even worse idea than the one Marvin had, but one that fits the style Hap and Leonard have become known for, so they promptly sign up and...
Let's just say that there's a lot going on in this novel. Lansdale starts it fast and keeps it going. This is the sort of book about which I could extend a synopsis on and on and still not spoil everything. What I've already described is highlighted on the back cover blurb, so it seems fair to go that far. The blurb also explains the title. Vanilla Ride is an assassin, hired by the Dixie Mafia to do away with our heroes once and for all and where that leads is probably my favourite part of this book. Nothing in a Hap and Leonard novel is simple and every action has a bigger reaction. I like where this one goes.
Where it goes is also too big for just two characters, so Jim Bob Luke is back on board, along with an extra new name, Tonto, who's a six-foot-seven behemoth with a tiny voice and a debt to Marvin he'll be happy to repay through this mission. The four work well together, even if other regular characters stay home, like Marvin and Brett, and others are absent throughout. Bob the armadillo is sadly gone and Leonard's boyfriend John has found religion and is guiltily praying the gay away.
There's a lot more that I'd love to talk about, but most of my favourite scenes are late on and I'm not going to spoil them. Suffice it to say that this isn't as loose as 'Captains Outrageous' but it snowballs just as much, even more. It's even harder hitting too and there are a lot of points where I appreciated that I was lying down because nobody follows the Marquis of Queensberry's rules. If this were a film, I'd be cringing at some of the hits, not for their quality but for their placement, as much as I do with Tony Jaa movies. Boy, that's gotta hurt!
The short chapter approach is a little offputting at first, but it works really well to get the urgency of this novel across. My copy runs 243 pages, but they're broken up over 59 chapters, meaning that each ends in an average of only four pages. That's so short, the text is almost staccato. I'm interested to see if Lansdale continues that practice in 'Devil Red', the eighth Hap and Leonard novel, released just two years after this one. Let's find out next month! ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles by Joe R Lansdale click here