The boys from East Texas return in what might be their most epic tale yet...
Well, it only took nine books and twenty-five odd years, but Hap Collins and Leonard Pine have finally found their true calling in life. They’d been inching towards it for the last few entries in the series, but Honky Tonk Samurai makes it official: Hap and Leonard are now professional detectives. Blue collar private eyes. Redneck gumshoes. Of course, it’s really Hap’s girlfriend Brett who’s running the show, after she buys Marvin Hansen’s P.I. business once Hansen is offered the Laborde police commissioner’s seat, but Hap and Leonard are now gainfully employed. Given how they are usually drawn into webs of intrigue and violence, it’s a job calling that’s been long overdue, and with Brett around to keep them in line, one that might last for longer than a few months. But all of that depends on them surviving the endless volley of shit thrown their way; something they’ve managed to do so far, but the two aren’t exactly spring chickens anymore. Their luck can only last so long…
Their first case comes about in traditional Hap and Leonard fashion: after Leonard is filmed beating up a man he catches abusing a dog, the newly instated Brett Sawyer Investigations is blackmailed by the little old lady doing the filming. She wants the boys (and gal) to look up her grand-daughter Sandy, who went missing some time ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Having no other choice but to take the case, their first lead takes them to a fancy car dealership where Sandy was working when she disappeared. Hap and Leonard eventually uncover the dealership as a front for a high-dollar prostitution and extortion ring, where the wealthy clients are filmed doing the two-bear mambo (sorry) and then blackmailed into giving up money to keep the tapes from being released. Of course, all of that is just the set-up for the fracas to come, putting Hap and Leonard in the midst of a massive crime ring and in the crosshairs of yet another legendary assassin, this one dubbed “The Canceller.” If they want to survive, they’ll have to take a page from the work I assume the book takes most of its inspiration from--Seven Samurai--and put together a team of formidable badasses.
The crew is made up of a couple of Lansdale regulars: of course we have Jim Bob Luke, the third private dick in the Hap and Leonard team who has become such a natural part of the ensemble, it always feels a bit weird when he doesn’t show up for at least one scene. Small-town reporter Cason Statler also returns, although he decides to sit out the gunfights and fisticuffs and focus mostly on the investigative side. He does put the boys in touch with an old army buddy of his, the sociopathic Booger, who first appeared along with Statler in Lansdale’s 2008 novel Leather Maiden. Booger is something of a wild card, a deadly, thrill-seeking kill machine who is just as likely to off the people he works with as the people he’s hired to kill, if the price is right. Having a volatile element like Booger produces a veritable explosion of fireworks, especially with the shit-talking Leonard, making the reader anxious to see how things would play out if the two were to finally come to blows. Rounding out the crew is another familiar face, the James Bond wet dream of a femme fatale assassin, Vanilla Ride. Her school-girl crush on Hap is starting to border on comical, but Vanilla is always a welcome character whenever she shows up, if only because her presence helps to break up all the testosterone. Having her lend her services to the boys also helps makes it easier to believe that the rough-and-tumble Hap and Leonard could take on the professional assassins that seem to just line up around the corner to take the duo out.
There’s another important character introduced, but to get into that, we’ll have to wade into some pretty significant SPOILER territory, so read on at your own peril. About halfway through the novel, a young woman stops by Brett Sawyer Investigations to drop the bombshell that she may actually the estranged daughter of Hap. Suitably named Chance, she’s the daughter of one of Hap’s old girlfriends, a young woman in her early twenties with a journalism degree and a big heart. If we can see Hap as something of an avatar for Lansdale himself, then it makes absolute sense for Hap to now have a daughter, as the author also has a daughter who’s now grown into a young woman. And while the scenes of them getting to know each other resonate very strongly, not much else is done with Chance… at least not here. She essentially acts as a sub-plot that never crosses over with the main action, and thus never really gets the narrative significance that such an important character in Hap’s life should. Once The Canceller gets on Hap and Leonard’s tails, Brett and Chance kind of disappear from the novel, literally going on an extended vacation while the boys sort out what’s what back at home. Considering the dynamic Brett usually adds to our main duo, I would have loved to see both her and Chance more involved in the plot, but I suppose Lansdale had enough on his plate with all the other characters.
Another criticism is the ending action scene, which is way too close to the way the last novel, Devil Red, ended. Once again we have yet another siege on a heavily-fortified compound housing yet another team of highly-trained, almost comic book-like assassins. And while the scene is as brutal and breakneck as anything else Lansdale has written (coupled with some distinctly on-brand Lansdale details that could only be described as “more fucked up than fucked up,” i.e., dozens of jars filled with human testicles), the impact is lessened somewhat due to the similarities to the previous novel. I did appreciate the reveal of what exactly became of Sandy, the missing person who set the whole plot in motion--that particular plot thread takes a turn that I don’t think anyone will see coming *, and also gives Lansdale one the best and most heartbreaking scenes in his literary canon, where Hap and Leonard have to explain it all to Sandy’s grandmother. I guess we could call the last few books in the series the “Vanilla Ride” trilogy, since all three deal with Hap and Leonard facing off against some colorful assassin or another, and all three feature the Vanilla Ride character, but I’m kind of glad that particular thread seems to be wrapped up for now. The series is still more fun than anything else you’re liable to read in the meantime, but I think I’m ready for another gear-shift in the Hap and Leonard books.
A gear-shift that seems to be promised by the humdinger of a cliffhanger Lansdale leaves us with here. The Hap and Leonard series has generally had endings that could be described as open-ended, but they more or less stand on their own. Not so with this entry, which no doubt left Hap and Leonard fans everywhere rushing to find out when the next entry in the series was due. It’s a bold choice to make for a series that’s coming up on its tenth installment and received newfound attention thanks to the new TV show, and one that I couldn’t help but admire for its ballsiness. Bring on Rusty Puppy!
* Even more, super-duper SPOILERS: I was fully prepared for Chance to be revealed as Sandy at some point in the novel, or perhaps the eighth Canceller that winds up stabbing Hap at the end, but she winds up being exactly who she says she is. And although it would have dove-tailed this storyline in quite nicely with the main one, I’m ultimately glad Lansdale decided to take it in another direction, as either of the two options above would have felt a little cheap.