Joe R Lansdale is a veteran writer of more than 25 years. He started out writing short stories for the independent press – mainly horror and thrillers. It’s something he still does, but has now achieved considerable mainstream success. His crime novel Cold in July was recently filmed with Don Johnson in a lead role. He has numerous awards to his name, and the University of Texas collected some of his best fiction in Sanctified and Chicken Fried, giving the academic seal of approval to a writer of some of the most funny, vulgar, and horrific stories written.
The Hap and Leonard stories have played a big role in his move to mainstream acceptance, and Savage Season is the first in the series. Lansdale seems incapable of choosing a genre and sticking to it, but these stories stay as close to the straight and narrow as he is ever likely to do. They are all thrillers set around the fictional East Texas town of LaBorde, with an emphasis on raucous humour, inventive swearing, and violent action.
Hap Collins is a good-natured, middle-aged, straight white man who served time in his youth for refusing to fight in Vietnam. For a pacifist, he gets into plenty of fights and it’s fair to say Collins is an underachiever in his working life, and frequently in his private life too.
Leonard Pine is a cookie loving, black gay man, and if you have a problem with that then God help you. He is a Vietnam vet, and in temperament is the opposite of Collins. The men are best friends, and seem to share a moral code. If words can’t solve their problems, neither is afraid of violence. The difference between them is that Collins will feel bad about it afterwards, and Pine will say they had it coming.
Savage Season came out in 1990 and is slightly different to the subsequent books in that it is greed – and it must be said Collins’ libido – which gets them into trouble. The men are working low paid jobs so money is tight. When Trudy arrives in town the men are out in the fields shooting skeet for the pot. Trudy and Collins were lovers at university, and it was she who encouraged him to become a conscientious objector. Separation can hurt any relationship though, and Collins found her visits to the state prison where he was incarcerated less and less frequent, until they stopped completely. When she tells Collins, after sex, that she knows how he can earn a cool $200,000 tax free, he is self-aware enough to know he’s being played but not quite enough to stop himself from taking the bait.
Trudy’s left wing politics have never left her. Her most recent husband, Howard, did time in prison for an anti-nuclear demonstration that got out of hand. During his sentence, Howard learned from another inmate about $1 million haul, the fruits of a bank robbery, which was lost in the maze-like creek system around LaBorde before the robbers could get away. Tragedy befell this other inmate before his release, and now the money will belong to whomever gets their hands on it. Trudy wants her share to fund a protest group she’s involved with.
Nothing is ever so simple, and Trudy is not so peaceful as she appears. Other criminals get wind of the haul, and there is plenty of twists and double crosses.
The book ends on a bittersweet but also hopeful note. The men escape with their lives, though Pine is left seriously injured, and part of their money goes to pay for his hospital care. Collins donates his share to Greenpeace, and though his faith in others takes a battering, his own ideals are reinforced.
The book is a complete story in its own right, and does not read like the the first in a series. Indeed it was another four years before Mucho Mojo, the second Hap and Leonard book was published.
Issues, such as sexuality, feminism, pacifism, and race, are not confronted directly, but are not avoided either. The East Texas setting affords the author many characters of a less progressive outlook. Lansdale eschews preaching, instead preferring humour. Nonetheless, it is clear over the course of the series that he is on the side of the angels. It is one of the things that makes the duo so likeable.
Ultimately these characters prove too good not to revisit. Joe R Lansdale has now produced more than Hap and Leonard 10 novels and novellas, and a TV series beginning next year. This is testament to the enduring appeal of crime fiction’s odd couple.