I have never read any of the Hap and Leonard series, but once I listened to Joe Lansdale do a reading at a con, and the guy made me cry talking about zombies of all things, so I knew the guy could write.
The sentence-level writing in this is superb to the point of showing off sometimes, when it came to analogies. The structure is about what you’d expect of any mystery novel. Hap and Leonard are … well, to call them private investigators is to give them credit for too much structure. I get the feeling that they pretty much do any work that comes their way. Hardscrabble seems to describe much of their lives, and the lack of real financial security is the background radiation that permeates much of the scenery. They’re not complicated guys, liking food, sex, guns and fast cars pretty much in that order. Wait, put dogs at the front of that list.
The story begins when Leonard beats a guy to a pulp for kicking a dog. Perverse, to my way of thinking, but I know there are a lot of people who value dogs higher than humans, and a lot of, um, “lower socioeconomic subcultures” who think nothing of violence as a means of “education.” Besides a love of Dr Pepper and vanilla cookies, I have nothing in common with these people, but they are interesting. Just when you think they can’t get any more redneck hick, they pull out some bon mots that made you laugh.
Originally they take the case–find the missing woman– to appease an old woman who’s blackmailing them. The original motivation doesn’t much hold water. She’s blackmailing them because she saw them beat up the dog-kicker, but they do far worse than that to see the case to the end. One of the more interesting aspects of this book is the moral ambiguity. Hap and Leonard are set up as good guys, because they’re the narrators, and they often try hard to be good guys (defending an innocent dog, eg., saving a woman who helped them from a biker gang) but the violence they dole out is often as bad or worse than the crimes they’re preventing. The novel ends unpleasantly, but I had to admit that A. Lansdale foreshadowed it adequately, and B. I can’t honestly say it wasn’t justice.
Neil Gaiman once said that the secret to good novels is having characters you’d want to be friends with. I wouldn’t want to be friends with these guys; they’re unpredictable and violent and have wildly different values than I do. But Lansdale does make them interesting, and as likeable as possible for two thugs who hurt people whenever it suits them. He does the same for East Texas–brings it to life, and convinces me soundly (if I needed convincing) that it’s not a place I’d like to live. Even without serial killers cutting off mens’ balls, that summer weather sounds unbearable.
So, a successful novel in that it taught me about different cultures and different people that I would likely not meet in real life. Fun too, for most of it, especially with the great narrator, until the depressing ending.