Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Bad Chili (1997)

            Hap and Leonard return for a fourth adventure, this time with murder, grease-stealing operations and a heaping helping of chili… 

             In what has to be the craziest opening in the series yet, Bad Chili’s first chapter sees Hap and Leonard attacked by a rabid squirrel. Even though they put a bullet in it, the squirrel still manages to bite Hap on the arm. Due to a near-worthless health insurance policy, it winds up costing Hap less if he spends a week in the hospital to get his shots, leaving half of our fearless duo sitting in a blank hospital room with nothing to do--more likely to die of boredom rather than rabies. But Hap doesn’t stay bored for long, as Leonard’s ex-boyfriend Raoul winds up dead in a ditch, with Leonard himself nowhere to be found and the prime suspect in the murder.

            It’s common of much of Lansdale’s work to shift gears in the narrative. You think the story is going one way in the beginning, only to take a severe left turn into completely different territory before he gets to the end. Lansdale did as much in the very first Hap and Leonard novel, and Bad Chili is another such tale, although it feels less here like an intentional swerve and more like a bunch of disparate elements loosely strung together in search of a driving narrative. The whole thrust of the novel boils down to Hap and Leonard trying to solve the murder of Raoul to clear Leonard’s name, and their “investigation” takes them everywhere from a beauty salon school to the biggest chili empire in all of Texas, with undercover cop stings, major restaurant grease-stealing operations and snuff films of gay men taking public beatings thrown in for good measure. It’s a lot to take in, and it doesn’t all hang together as smoothly as previous novels in the series, with a lot of interesting set-ups that don’t get quite the attention they deserve in this one single novel. Once again, we get what looks like another set-up for a major villain in King Arthur, the wealthy owner and operator of King Arthur’s Chili, but it turns out to be just another red herring. The climax taking place during a tornado--while equally exciting as the final showdown during the flood from the last novel--also can’t help but feel tacked on at the last minute, a quick fix to tie up the remaining plot threads (and also feels a bit far-fetched, even for a Hap and Leonard novel--these people should be running for cover, not trying to kill each other).       

            Still, Bad Chili remains as enjoyable a novel as any other in the series, thanks to Lansdale’s imminently readable prose and the characters themselves. Hap and Leonard are somewhat narratively indestructible, in the sense that you can throw them anywhere and immediately you have a story. We also get some new ingredients to shake things, the first being Brett Sawyer, a beautiful, foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails nurse who Hap immediately falls for during his stay in the hospital. Brett will go on to be a major character in the series, and a refreshing change of pace for Hap, who’s had his heart broken so many times throughout the series in so many horrible ways that to inflict any more upon the character would just seem cartoonishly cruel. We also get another addition to the series’ “supporting cast,” although it’s one Lansdale readers will be already familiar with: Jim Bob Luke, the hog-farming private eye from Lansdale’s excellent thriller Cold in July. Jim Bob’s introduction to the Hap and Leonard series is an all-timer, a gut-punch of a rescue/action scene that perfectly sets up a character with the stature of a great action movie hero--whether you’re previously familiar with him or not, his intro in Bad Chili makes him a character you will definitely pay attention to whenever he shows up. He also adds nicely to the established chemistry of Hap and Leonard, as their duo becomes a trio for much of the book, and Lansdale integrates Jim Bob into the cast in a way that makes him a natural foil/ally to our favorite Disaster Twins.

            It’s a bit of a mess in the long run, but with the introductions of new characters and relationships that will go on to shape and define the series from here on out, Bad Chili remains an essential piece of the Hap and Leonard lore.

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