Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Mucho Mojo (1994)

            Hap and Leonard return, this time caught up in a bonafide murder mystery. 

            Savage Season provided an ample introduction to the weird and wild and just-this-side-of-reality world of Hap and Leonard, but wasn’t written as being the first book in a continuing series. It’s Mucho Mojo that truly defines them and the relationship they’ll carry across the next eight books and change. While Savage Season told a relatively simple story that took a rather gruesome left-turn in a short novel just shy of 200 pages, Mucho Mojo delves full bore into an honest-to-God murder mystery, with just the right amount of offbeat humor and East Texas weirdness that is author Joe Lansdale’s trademark.

            The last novel focused primarily on Hap and his travails, with Leonard just along for the ride, but for this go-round, we get a little more insight into everyone’s favorite gay black Conservative war veteran. Here we learn that Leonard lost his parents at an early age, and was taken in by his uncle Chester, who taught him everything he needed to know to grow-up into the badass he became. But the two had a falling out after his uncle discovered that Leonard was a homosexual, and their relationship remained strained ever since. The novel opens with Leonard getting the news that Chester has died, and has left everything he had to his nephew, including the house Leonard grew up in. He moves in with Hap in tow, and the two of them decide to take a few months off to fix the place up. Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Hap and Leonard joint if the duo didn’t stumble onto some manner of ill-fortune, and here they manage to find it beneath the floorboards in Chester’s basement: the skeleton of a small boy, stored in a box filled with child pornography. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Leonard refuses to believe his uncle was a murderer, and he and Hap set out to prove his innocence and find themselves unraveling a spate of child murders that stretches back for decades.

            The bulk of the narrative is fueled by Leonard and his coming to terms with his past, but Hap narrates most all of the series, and thus gets his own arc to go through. Before he died, Chester set up his will with an attorney, the hot-as-fire and tough-as-nails Florida Grange, and it isn’t long before she and Hap start to develop a relationship. “Hap” proves to be a perfect moniker for Lansdale’s surrogate character, an eternally hapless Texan with a big heart but a growing bald spot. Hap can’t catch a break, and his relationship with Florida is short-lived and messy. She finds him lacking in ambition, and also is uncomfortable with him being white and her black, and leaves him for another man before the novel’s end. We also meet two characters who will go on to become “series regulars”: hard-beaten cops Charlie Blank and Marvin Hansen. Sometimes feeling like the only two honest detectives in all of LaBorde, Charlie and Marvin act as a sort of mirror image for Hap and Leonard, albeit on the “right” side of the law. Their sometimes contentious but ultimately friendly relationship with our two main heroes will continue throughout most of the series, and it’s nice to see the beginnings of the friendship here.

 All of this is sprinkled through the story like seasoning in a stew while Hap and Leonard unravel the web they find themselves entangled in by the clues Uncle Chester left behind--all pointing towards several missing children and a ritualistic serial murderer, preying off of lower-income black children who visit a travelling carnival held in their part of town at the same time every year. Lansdale has his roots in horror, and although he’s constantly bending genre to his will within his woks, one foot always remains planted firmly in the macabre. Mucho Mojo gets some of the creepiest imagery of the entire Hap and Leonard canon, with an old, dilapidated mansion where the murders have taken place beneath a water-stain on the wall bearing a striking resemblance to Jesus landing particularly high on the creepy scale.

            If Savage Season was a longing look back at the hollow idealism of the sixties filtered through the vapid excess of the eighties, then Mucho Mojo is where the Hap and Leonard books truly finds its footing as a series. Lansdale really gets in the groove of his two longest-lasting characters, and begins to define how each of their conflicting viewpoints allow him to explore a wealth of topics without coming off as preachy or solipsistic; allowing Lansdale to comment on things without textually commenting on them. A lesson without giving a sermon. The two bicker over racism, sexism, religion and class divisions--never settling on the specifics, but generally agreeing upon one thing: they stick together, through thick and thin. Even if all evidence points to your deceased uncle being a child murderer. Even when one of you decides that enough is enough, and burn downs the crack house next door; come what may after. At the end of the day, Hap and Leonard have each other’s backs, and are more than willing to jump in the fire when the other one gets caught… especially if it was their fault they got the other stuck there in the first place. 

I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

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