- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

By Joe R. Lansdale
Knopf, $24.95, 246 pages

Let’s not mince words. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Vanilla Ride” is the best crime novel I’ve read in years. Who could not love a novel whose first paragraph goes: “I hadn’t been shot at in a while, and no one had hit me in the head for a whole month or two, and I was starting to feel special.” Or a fourth paragraph that goes: “Brett sat up and fluffed her pillow behind her back and pushed her long bloodred hair to the side, shoved her chest forward in a way that made me feel mighty lucky, and said ‘I haven’t had that much fun since I pistol-whipped a redheaded midget.’”

I’m new to Mr. Lansdale, but he’s written six previous books in his Hap and Leonard series, as well as half a dozen others. And since I’m not mincing words, let me say that Mr. Lansdale doesn’t mince them either. I quoted those two paragraphs in their entirety, because much of the dialogue in Mr. Lansdale’s book cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper. His protagonists, Hap Collins (he’s the big straight white tough guy from East Texas) and Leonard Pine (he’s the big gay black tough guy from East Texas) tend to use the F-word a lot. And the N-word, and the Q-word and the S-word and the other F-word, and the MF-word and the CS-word and, well you get the X-rated idea.

Mr. Lansdale’s novel is one of those crime books that starts simple but gets complicated in the way that Murphy’s Law complicates life. Hap and Leonard are asked by their friend, a former cop named Marvin Hanson, to extricate Marvin’s granddaughter Gadget from an abusive relationship with a young man from No Enterprise, Texas. Except, as Marvin puts it, “he’s kind of a drug dealer.”

“‘Kind of?’” Hap asks.

“‘OK,’ Marvin said. ‘Absolutely he is. And if the law gets involved, well, she could get involved.’”

Of course, Marvin conveniently forgets to tell Hap and Leonard that said drug dealer is low man on an organized crime totem pole. Or that No Enterprise’s two-man sheriff’s office is being paid off by the Dixie Mafia, a large and deadly crime organization that is tied to the Aryan Nations and comes after Hap and Leonard because in the course of extricating Gadget from her abusive relationship, Hap happens to flush six figures worth of cocaine down a toilet and the Dixie Mafia wants an eye for an eye.

One of the more enjoyable aspects to novels like this one is their historicity. Guys like Hap and Leonard descend from a long line of fictional, Adamic American antiheroes going back to the 18th-century novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” protagonist Natty Bumppo was an antihero who lived by his own code and traveled wildernesses guided by his own moral compass. The same can be said for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade — and Mr. Lansdale’s Texas toughs. They do not eschew violence. But their word is their bond, they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They are not the sorts of touchie-feelie heroes common to much of today’s action fiction. Far, far from it. But they do, after the battle, sometimes philosophize in a macho sorta way about masculine identity, the ramifications of what they do, what they’ve done and what it all means.

When Hap and his girlfriend, Brett, are ambushed by the drug dealer and the Dixie Mafia, they counterattack. It’s one hell of a brawl. “I bit the guy I was fighting so hard I took part of his nose away. He let out a bellow and I leaped forward and poked a finger in one of his eyes. As he staggered back, I kicked and caught the inside of his kneecap and it made a pleasant sound like a drover cracking a whip. He fell with one hand on his face, the other clutching at his knee. I picked up my gun and walked over to him and shot him in the head.”

The cops arrive and Hap, Brett and Leonard are tossed in jail. Hap ends up in a cell “with a burly tattooed guy with greasy hair and a lot of muscles and a way of looking at me that made me feel like a pork chop. … At least he had all his teeth and no pustules on his face.”

Before the guy can make a move, Hap “hit him as hard as I could, right across the cheek. … He fell backwards on his bunk but his [weight] pulled him onto the floor. He lay beside the bunk twitching like a Pentecostal having a Jesus rigor. … My life had been too full of quick punches, blood and gun smoke. … I wanted never to throw a punch again. Never see a gun again, not even from a distance, not even a picture in a magazine. I wanted never to be mad again. I wanted to not have to worry about my code of honor. I wanted it not to matter. … I was tired about the whole dirty, bloody thing that was my life. I was beginning to consider heavily that old saying about being careful when you fight monsters so that you do not become one. In that moment I was feeling pretty monstrous.”

But Mr. Lansdale knows when to stop, and how to change the mood: “After a while a big shadow came down the hall … and pretty soon there was a guy following it. He was one of the cops who had arrested us. He was a big guy with a belly that was teasing the buttons on his shirt. … He stood at the door to my cell, looking through the bars. He stared down at my pal on the floor, said, ‘What happened to him?’

“‘Fainting spell,’ I said. ‘Saw a mouse.’

“‘A mouse, huh?’

“‘It was a big one.’”

There’s a couple of 100 wonderful pages between that scene and the scene in which we finally get to meet Vanilla Ride, who is a beautiful and efficient contract killer for the Dixie Mafia and who lives by more or less the same moral code as Hap and Leonard do. That trip from point “A” to point “B” (with some interesting stops along the way) is filled with well-wrought characters, black humor, knife-sharp dialogue and enough violence to make even the most jaded Quentin Tarantino aficionado sit up and smile. It’s a wonderful, gut-busting ride.

John Weisman’s latest novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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