Justified – an American TV classic

JustifiedHaving just completed my third go-round of all six series of the TV series Justified (2010-2015) and also having recently read all of Elmore Leonard’s printed stories featuring modern-day Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, I have concluded Justified is the perfect example of how to take a literary creation and expand on the character and to create something even better for the TV screen. Even after three full viewings I haven’t tired of the series and will probably go round again in another couple of years. Timothy Olyphant was born to play Raylan, with his laconic no-nonsense delivery and old-west values. Walton Goggins was so charismatic as local gangster Boyd Crowder he was resurrected from the dead, having been killed off in Leonard’s novella Fire in the Hole and again in the adaptation of that novella for the pilot. The supporting cast are all wonderful and the colourful and quirky characters they portray reflect the locale perfectly.

Elmore Leonard created the character of Raylan Givens in his 1993 novel Pronto. This was followed by Riding the Rap two years later. Both novels set the template for the Raylan Givens character, which was closely followed in the TV series. It was Leonard’s third Givens story, the excellent 2002 novella Fire in the Hole, that was the basis for the series, with Raylan being relocated to Harlan County to end the criminal activities of Boyd Crowder. Raylan and Boyd dug coal together in the Harlan mines in their younger years, but now they are either side of the law with Raylan determined to bring Boyd to justice.  A fourth book, Raylan, followed in 2012. This was three separate stories linked together by a theme of a female opponent for Raylan. The novel was based on story lines Leonard contributed to the TV series and also allowed him to resurrect the character of Boyd in print.

Related imageJustified‘s first series was more a run of singular episodes with an over-riding arc. The stories were therefore episodic, but vastly entertaining. It was the second season where the series really took off with the introduction of the Bennett clan, run by matriarch Mags, wonderfully played by Margo Martindale. The series began a new approach of a continuing story thread with each season bringing a new major character into the story, whilst the regular cast continued the longer arc that would reach its brilliantly written and satisfying conclusion at the end of the sixth and final season. I wrote a short review of each season in an earlier piece I posted and I don’t want to give too much away here, in case anyone has yet to experience what in my opinion is amongst the very best American TV series of all time.

If you have never watched Justified, go seek out the pilot and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

Book Review – FIRE IN THE HOLE AND OTHER STORIES (2004) by Elmore Leonard

FIRE IN THE HOLE AND OTHER STORIES by ELMORE LEONARD (2004, William Morrow, 228pp) ***½

Blurb: Originally published as When the Women Came Out to Dance, Elmore Leonard’s extraordinary story collection, Fire in the Hole reconfirms his standing as the “King Daddy of crime writers” (Seattle Times)–a true Grand Master in the legendary company of John D. MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. These nine riveting tales of crime and (sometimes) punishment–including the title story starring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, which was the basis for the smash hit TV series Justified–feature all the elements that have made the great Elmore Leonard great: superb writing, unforgettable characters, breathtaking twists, and the sharpest, coolest dialogue in the mystery-thriller genre.

An interesting collection of some of Elmore Leonard’s short stories and two novellas. The key story of interest is “Fire in the Hole”, which became the basis for the TV series Justified. This is one of two novellas included, the other being Tenkiller, which also plays like a modern day western. Sparks (1999, 17pp) ***½  is the story of an insurance investigator looking into a house fire of a property owned by a wealthy widow. It has echoes of Double Indemnity and gets the collection off to a solid start. Hanging Out at the Buena Vista (1999, 5pp) **½ is a short throwaway vignette set in a nursing home where two elderly people are coming to terms with their mortality. Chickasaw Charlie Hoke (2001, 17pp) *** is the story of an out-of-work ex-ball player trying to trade off his name. The story is insubstantial but features strong characters. When the Women Come Out to Dance (2003, 17pp) **** is one of the strongest stories in the collection and concerns a red-headed ex-stripper who has married into money and become Mrs Mahmood. She hires a maid she suspects had killed her own husband with the intention she does the same for her. This story too has some marvellous noir-ish touches and a satisfying twist climax. Fire in the Hole (2002, 56pp) ****½ is the main draw here. It features US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, star of Leonard’s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, as he returns to his home town in Kentucky and comes across Boyd Crowder, who he “dug coal with” before he became a lawman. Crowder is now a bigoted criminal looking to wage war against black Americans and take control of the local drug trade. Most of the characters used in the TV series are introduced here and this is the best of Leonard’s stories to feature Givens. Karen Makes Out (1996, 22pp) *** features another of Leonard’s popular creations, US Marshal Karen Sisco. This story demonstrates her fallibility when she unknowingly becomes romantically involved with a bank robber. The story plays out in pretty predictable fashion, but Leonard is obviously at home with his characters here. Hurrah for Capt. Early (1994, 17pp) ***½ is a Western story of a returning black soldier from the Cuban war who faces bigotry from cowboys in a town welcoming home a war hero. The story plays out well with a strong, dignified, central character in Bo Catlett. The Tonto Woman (1982, 17pp) *** is also set in the west, where a rancher has his Indian wife living in exile in a log cabin, where she is befriended by a charming Mexican cattle rustler. This story plays out more as a morality tale and has familiar tropes of the genre. The final story Tenkiller (2003, 60pp) ***½ features ex-Rodeo rider now Hollywood stunt man, Ben Webster returning to his homestead to find three criminals have rented the property on which they are stripping hijacked trucks. There is the re-kindling of a romance and a satisfying showdown thrown into the mix. It is a formula that Ace Atkins would explore in his Leonard-inspired Quinn Colson series. This ends a satisfying mix of stories that demonstrate Leonard’s strength with handling plot, characters and dialogue in his distinctive economical style.

Book Review – RIDING THE RAP (1995) by Elmore Leonard

RIDING THE RAP by ELMORE LEONARD (1995, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 326pp) ***

Riding the Rap by [Leonard, Elmore]Blurb: Palm Beach playboy Chip Ganz needs money – fast. He has spiralling debts, and his mother’s gravy-train has just derailed. So he has a plan: he’s going to find somebody rich, and take them hostage. With the help of an ex-con, a psycho gardener and the beautiful psychic Reverend Dawn, he chooses bookmaker Harry Arno as the lucky victim. The trouble is, Harry can scam with the best of them. And that’s not the only problem. US Marshal Raylan Givens is sleeping with Harry’s ex girlfriend, Joyce, and she wants Harry found. And when everyone’s got a gun, someone is going to get hurt …

Elmore Leonard’s second novel to feature Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens lacks the scope of the first, 1993’s Pronto. It is, however, still an entertaining read filled with Leonard’s trademark characters. The character of bookmaker Harry Arno returns from that book and plays a major part in the story here. The plot again is slight – revolving around a kidnapping scam where the victim is asked to pay for their own release. Raylan is quickly onto the gang and most of the book is spent on detailing how the gang unravel as personal greed and personality clashes take over. Leonard has a fantastic ear for dialogue and his writing style is as efficient as ever. Whilst Riding the Rap won’t sit high in his overall output, it further confirms the potential in his main protagonist, something that Leonard would explore further in his novella, Fire in the Hole and would be taken into the TV series Justified. This novel would be adapted into the third episode of the first season of the series with changes to characters.

Raylan Givens books by Elmore Leonard:
Pronto (1993) ***½
Riding the Rap (1995) ***
Fire in the Hole (novella) (2002) – the basis for Justified.
Raylan (2012) ***½

Book Review – PRONTO (1993) by Elmore Leonard

PRONTO by ELMORE LEONARD (1993; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 226pp) ***½

Image result for elmore leonard pronto weidenfeld & NicolsonBlurb: Harry Arno runs a South Miami Beach gambling operation. To protect his position, he was forced to cut a deal with the local muscle, Jimmy Capotorto (Jumbo Jimmy Cap), an even fifty-fifty split. For years Harry had been padding his own stake by skimming off the top. Now a couple of local detectives – wise to sticky fingers – try to bag Jimmy by putting the squeeze on Harry. U.S. Marshals deliver Harry to court to testify at Jimmy’s trial. Even though he’s a step slower than he used to be, Harry’s no fool – he slips out of the country pronto. With Jimmy Cap’s men following and the Feds close behind, the three sides end up in Italy, watching their own backs while keeping abreast of Harry’s. But it’s not until the chase leads back to Miami that the real winners and losers are revealed …

Being a huge fan of the TV series Justified, which ran from 2010-15 featuring Timothy Olyphant as Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, I thought I’d go back to the source of his creation with this 1993 novel by Elmore Leonard. All the facets of Raylan’s character are set out here in this slight tale of a fugitive being hunted down by both the law and the gangsters he has been skimming from. Most of the action takes place in Italy, where Harry Arno has fled with his girlfriend, Joyce. All the characters here are well drawn and typical of Leonard’s crime novels – the sharp-talking small-time crook, the over-confident hit-man, the crime boss past his sell-buy date, the girls that skirt and scheme around these characters getting what they can for themselves. Whilst there in no real deep message or social commentary in this tale, what it lacks in depth it makes up for with its witty dialogue and fast-moving plot. Raylan, here, is slightly older than he is portrayed in Justified and has two kids from his failed marriage to Winona. Otherwise his character is in sync with that essayed so well by Olyphant. In fact, the last scene of the book is the first scene of the TV series creating a nice link to the show. Pronto was also adapted for the small screen as a TV movie in 1997 with James Le Gros the first actor to portray Raylan Givens and Peter Falk taking on the role of Harry Arno.

Raylan Givens books by Elmore Leonard:
Pronto (1993) ***½
Riding the Rap (1995)
Fire in the Hole (short story) (2002) – the basis for Justified.
Raylan (2012) ***½

Book Review – BLACK AND BLUE (1997) by Ian Rankin

BLACK AND BLUE by IAN RANKIN (1997, Orion, 498pp) ****½

Blurb: In the 1960s, the infamous Bible John terrorised Scotland when he murdered three women, taking three souvenirs. Thirty years later, a copycat is at work, dubbed Johnny Bible. DI John Rebus’s unconventional methods have got him in trouble before – now he’s taken away from the inquiry and sent to investigate the killing of an off-duty oilman. But when his case clashes head-on with the Johnny Bible killings, he finds himself in the glare of a fearful media, whilst under the scrutiny of an internal enquiry. Just one mistake is likely to mean losing his job – and quite possibly his life.

Ian Rankin had written seven Rebus novels before Black and Blue and had become an established name in the crime-writing field, but was seen as more of a B-list writer. This book exploded him into the A-list, where he has stayed ever since. In his introduction to this 2016 edition, Rankin recalls the personal turmoil he was going through at the time of writing. Living in France with a son diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome, the writer and his wife struggled with the bureaucracy of the French medical system. The family would eventually return to Scotland. The impression this left on Rankin fired his need to voice his concerns on a broader template. Also, around the time of writing the book, press interest in the historic Bible John killings had been heightened by new DNA evidence. Rankin had undertaken extensive research into the case and decided to incorporate a real life killer into his fictional story of a copy cat. Other elements incorporated into the story are police and corporate corruption, environmentalists protesting about pollution caused by the oil companies and a drug smuggling involving gangsters from Glasgow and Aberdeen. It was to become Rankin’s most complex and multi-layered book.

Rankin explores his protagonist in deep detail – his loyalty, his alcohol dependency, his inner-angst. What emerges is a very three-dimensional portrayal of a flawed man whose sole motivation in life is to see justice done. Saddled with a former colleague, whilst he is being investigated for malpractice in an old case, Rebus is as acerbic and dogged as ever. A loner tethered to a leash, which brings his anxieties to the surface. The book has a broad scope taking Rebus from Edinburgh to Glasgow, Aberdeen, the Shetlands and a North Sea oil rig. The separate plot strands are nicely interwoven revealing some surprising links along the way. Rankin’s research helps bring the locales and the police investigation to life in an enthralling way.

Black and Blue is a novel that shows a writer fully maturing and it would set the bar for the remainder of the series.

The Rebus Series:

  1. Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
  2. Hide and Seek (1991) ***
  3. Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
  4. Strip Jack (1992)
  5. The Black Book (1993) ***
  6. Mortal Causes (1994) ***
  7. Let it Bleed (1996)
  8. Black and Blue (1997) ****½
  9. The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
  10. Dead Souls (1999)
  11. Set in Darkness (2000) ****
  12. The Falls (2001)
  13. Resurrection Men (2002) ****
  14. A Question of Blood (2003) ****
  15. Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
  16. The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
  17. Exit Music (2007) ****
  18. Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ∗∗∗½
  19. Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
  20. Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
  21. Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
  22. In a House of Lies (2018)

Film Review – DARK PASSAGE (1947)

Image result for dark passage 1947Dark Passage (1947; USA; B&W; 106m) ***½  d. Delmer Daves; w. Delmer Daves; ph. Sid Hickox; m. Franz Waxman.  Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Tom D’Andrea, Clifton Young, Douglas Kennedy, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson. A man convicted of murdering his wife escapes from prison and works with a woman to try and prove his innocence. An overly contrived, if admittedly engrossing and entertaining, plot relying on too much coincidence is all but overcome by the strong cast and technical accomplishments. Using the camera as the protagonist’s point-of-view for over half its running time, the gimmick seems a little forced. Bogart doesn’t physically appear until over an hour into the story, but Bacall holds the screen well and their star chemistry is still apparent. Hickox’s photography using the San Francisco locations and dark streets is moodily effective. Daves directs his own screenplay adaptation with a sure hand and uses hand-held cameras to good effect. Moorehead stands out in the supporting cast as a schemer. Based on the novel by David Goodis. [PG]

Book Review – THE FALLEN (2017) by Ace Atkins

THE FALLEN by ACE ATKINS (2017, Corsair, 358pp) ****
Blurb: Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson had to admit he admired the bank robbers. A new bank was hit almost every week, and the robbers rushed in and out with such skill and precision it reminded him of raids he’d led back in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was an army ranger. In fact, it reminded him so much of the techniques in the Ranger Handbook that he couldn’t help wondering if the outlaws were former Rangers themselves. And that was definitely going to be a problem. If he stood any chance of catching them, he was going to need the help of old allies, new enemies, and a lot of luck. The enemies he had plenty of. It was the allies and the luck that were going to be in woefully short supply.

The seventh book in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is a strong character driven entry. Its interesting to note that many TV series these days take on season long stories with arcs across their seasons. This was to give the TV series the feel of a novel and explore in depth character as well as plot and sub-plot. Well, we seem to have come full circle as Atkins’ series deftly transfers the concept of cross-season story arcs into his novel series, so with this book we are left on something of a cliffhanger, which leads us to look forward to the next instalment.

Atkins has grown in confidence with the series and this book, whilst it may be light on central plot, is driven by the many sub-plots that lie beneath. This allows him to invest time into his characters, with greater exploration of Colson’s reformed sister Caddy and the new owner of the lap-dancing bar, Fannie Hathcock, in particular. There is also a new love interest for Quinn in the form of Maggie Wilcox, who happens to have a direct link into the central plot as well. The book is also a turning point in the career of Quinn’s deputy, Liilie Virgil.

Atkins writes with great assurance and the dialogue is sparky and humorous; reminiscent of one of his heroes – Elmore Leonard. This then, is another excellent entry in a series that just gets better and better.

The Quinn Colson series:
The Ranger (2011) ***
The Lost Ones (2012) ***
The Broken Place (2013) ***
The Forsaken (2014) ***½
The Redeemers (2015) ****
The Innocents (2016) ***½
The Fallen (2017) ****
The Sinners (2018)

Film Review – KILLER JOE (2011)

Image result for killer joe 2011Killer Joe (2011; USA; Colour; 102m) ***½  d. William Friedkin; w. Tracy Letts; ph. Caleb Deschanel; m. Tyler Bates.  Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, Charley Vance, Gregory Bachaud, Marc Macaulay. When a debt puts a young man’s life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance. Brilliantly acted and darkly comic crime thriller suffers from the occasional misstep – notably in its overly sensational climax. The plot is simple, but cleverly executed and the dialogue is naturalistic. McConaughey is the standout as the detective/hitman with psychotic tendencies beneath a cool and charming facade. Church is also very good as the dim-witted husband of opportunistic Gershon. A tough watch for some, again notably in the final act, this demonstrates Friedkin hasn’t lost his appetite to challenge his audience. Letts adapted her own play. [18]

Film Review – MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)

Image result for miller's crossing 1990 posterMiller’s Crossing (1990; USA; DuArt; 115m) ***  d. Joel Coen; w. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; ph. Barry Sonnenfeld; m. Carter Burwell.  Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Mike Starr, Richard Woods, Al Mancini, Sam Raimi, Frances McDormand. In the 1920s, an Irish gangster and his trusted lieutenant and counsellor find their domination of the town threatened by an ambitious Italian underboss. The Coen Brothers mix traditional gangster movie tropes with very black comedy to produce a lively but ultimately frustrating tale of false loyalties. It starts out well, establishing the key character of Byrne as he plays off Finney against Polito, but the story descends into an increasingly implausible sequence of double-crosses. Good period detail and handsome photography, along with frequently sharp dialogue, are the highlights. Based on the novels “Red Harvest” and “Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett, which previously were filmed as or inspired ROADHOUSE NIGHTS (1930), YOJIMBO (1961) and FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). [15]

Film Review – THE BIG STEAL (1949)

The Big Steal 1949 U.S. Half Sheet PosterBig Steal, The (1949; USA; B&W; 71m) ***  d. Don Siegel; w. Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes), Gerald Drayson Adams; ph. Harry J. Wild; m. Leigh Harline.  Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen, Pascual García Peña. An army lieutenant accused of robbery pursues the real thief on a frantic chase through Mexico aided by the thief’s fiancee. Simple plot is essentially an elongated chase punctuated by fight scenes and gun battles. It is tightly directed in his to be trademark efficient manner by Siegel. Mitchum and Greer are the main sell here and they display strong chemistry trading witty dialogue. There is a lightness of touch to proceedings that tells its audience not to take things too seriously. The movie was filmed in Los Angeles and on location in Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico. Based on the story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser. [PG]