It’s been six years since the last Hap and Leonard novel, Devil Red, though author Joe R. Lansdale has written several novellas and short stories in the meantime. Coinciding with the new Sundance TV show is their eleventh entry, Honky Tonk Samurai, which had a roundabout release schedule after releasing in Italy in the fall of 2015. Hap and Leonard have been one of crime fiction’s most fascinating duos since their introduction in 1990—Hap Collins is a working-class white guy, a left-leaning idealist who went to jail for draft-dodging and hates violence and killing; Leonard Pine is a gay, Republican black man who developed his rough-and-tough persona after growing up in racist East Texas and serving in ‘Nam. They’re the best of friends, two “freelance troubleshooters” who get into a variety of sticky situations and run afoul of some rather vile people in Lansdale’s oddball “redneck noir” series.
Honky Tonk Samurai begins with the two characters working a surveillance job for cop-turned-P.I. Marvin Hanson, which is interrupted when their target’s neighbor starts abusing a dog, and an angry Leonard decides to set him straight. The first police responders on the scene include Marvin Hanson, recently roped back into law enforcement to become the police chief, whose first order of business is to arrest the dog abuser and let Leonard off the hook. His second is to sell his detective agency to Hap’s girlfriend Brett.
A few weeks later, Hap and Brett are easing into their new line of business, and are making progress in nursing the poor dog—named Buffy—back to health. That’s when their first job comes lurching up their stairs, a crotchety and foul-mouthed old woman who has footage of Leonard beating the shit out of the dog abuser on her phone. She threatens to release that footage unless they start investigating the disappearance of her niece, Sandy, who’s gone missing under mysterious circumstances. That’s when things start to go sideways, and the boys may have finally bitten off more than they can chew: the dealership Sandy worked at is a front for a large blackmailing ring, which is itself just one tentacle of a large criminal enterprise. Along the way, they’ll run afoul of a ex-con turned transgender car salesman, a biker gang army from hell, and a group of inbred hitmen who collect the testicles from all the targets they kill. For a plot this wild and complex, Hap and Leonard need to pull out the big guns, and they recruit a murderer’s row of vigilantes and anti-heroes from the pages of Lansdale’s other novels…
At times, Honky Tonk Samurai feels like the Hap and Leonard swan song. The two main characters are getting up in age, now both in their fifties and starting to feel it; they also start doing some soul-searching, with Leonard trying to figure out his on-off relationship with John, and Hap coming face to face with a young woman named Chance, claiming to be his daughter. Most of the novel’s plot works to get the band back together for one last big battle, pulling in hotshot P.I. and cowboy-wannabe Jim Bob Luke (from Cold in July), investigative journalist Cason and sociopathic Booger (see Hot in December), and the beautiful ex-assassin Vanilla Ride (from, well, Vanilla Ride). The last hundred pages or so is an excellent, high-octane thrill ride as the characters’ grand plan is put to the test. And while I don’t want to spoil the ending, it—and some of the other developments in the novel—leave things in a much different and more ambiguous place, almost demanding another book to answer the many questions left hanging.
But while the last few hundred pages are attention-grabbing and action-packed, the first hundred pages or so meander around, setting up the various developments and letting Hap and Leonard engage in witty banter. I never thought I’d see the day where I grew tired of reading Hap and Leonard dialogue—I still don’t, but it’s starting to wear a bit thin, and of the book’s 61 short chapters a few too many consist of nothing but repetitive talking. Most of these aren’t too bad as they do relate to the narrative, but Jim Bob Luke in particular goes off on a few tall-tales which have nothing to do with the plot. The Hap and Leonard stories have always been a bit out-there/over-the-top, but Honky Tonk Samurai takes the cake; the investigation takes a slow and roundabout route while the convoluted plot grows in magnitude—and the bad guys get badder—at an exponential rate.
Joe Lansdale can still write circles around many lesser authors, and Honky Tonk Samurai still has a lot of the killer lines of dialogue that make you smile or laugh, along with his trademark raunchy humor. The mystery and its investigation is fascinating, if convoluted, and the action scenes go balls-to-the-walls with a shootout and car chase with some of the nastiest folk in East Texas. There’s some wild twists and turns you probably will never expect, which kept me on edge. Lansdale even tugs at your heartstrings, such as the scene where they unravel all the mysteries for their client, and in a few scenes where Hap bonds with his (possible) daughter. But I’m left feeling that the series is starting to go through the numbers—it hits all the expected beats but doesn’t quite have the same vigor as the earlier books, and it falls short of Lansdale’s recent high-water marks like Edge of Dark Water and Paradise Sky. Lansdale does a lot to shake up the status quo, and Rusty Puppy—the forthcoming twelfth entry in the series—could be a very different animal, and at the least should answer the questions left over from Honky Tonk Samurai. I’m intrigued already.
Honky Tonk Samurai is a novel that fans of the series may eat up, if only because it’s an entertaining novel that delivers everything you expect from a Hap and Leonard book. Heck, new fans should also find it accessible given the way it introduces the characters, and if you’ve never read a Hap and Leonard novel before, you’re in for a treat—even if this one has a few rough edges. While it’s entertaining as hell and has a lot of good elements, my feelings are mixed about Honky Tonk Samurai; it suffers most from a lack of balance. The first third of the novel is eased on like a pair of comfortable (if worn-out) slippers: introducing the characters, having them partake in lots of humorous dialogue, balancing mystery with danger, though altogether it’s a bit too talky and meandering. About at the halfway mark, the novel shows its fangs and grabs hold of you; it speeds up as it races towards its bloody finale. Despite my nitpicking it’s very much worth reading, and it left me pumped for the release of Rusty Puppy.
Title: Honky Tonk Samurai
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Mulholland Books/Hachette
First Published Date: 2 February 2016
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: $26 hardcover / $13.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-0316329408 / B010MPQGEG