Friday, February 13, 2009

Guest blogger: The ALP on Black Lizard and Joe Lansdale

Happy holiday Monday, everyone (unless you work in retail, of course). I'm taking the day off from blogging and ceding book review duties to everyone's favorite, the ALP.

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Back when I was in high school, I somehow stumbled across the Black Lizard edition of Jim Thompson's After Dark, My Sweet. I don't know how I came across it. I may have thought the book was about vampires or something. Anyway, back then, most of the Black Lizard books had a uniform look: a blurry black and white cover photo with bars of vivid color criss-crossing the photo. The covers had a matte finish that gave them a pleasingly thick and slightly pebbled feel, like really high-quality old paper. The look was distinct and badass. It had a lurid and pulpy edge, appropriate to the contents, but the quality of presentation also suggested something lasting and enduring. As physical objects, these books were a perfect manifestation of the publisher's philosophy that these unjustly neglected genre "hacks" were actually under-recognized geniuses worthy of the full-on quality lit giant treatment. Because the BL books looked so classy were clearly meant to outlast mass-market paperbacks, I developed a peculiar prejudice against non-BL crime lit. Authors on the BL list were, somehow, on a different playing field than "regular" crime/mystery authors. I felt that BL treatment was something a writer graduated into if they were good enough.

This is, of course, silly. There are several authors on the BL list that are curious exemplars of the hardboiled style, but honestly aren't that awesome. More importantly, there's just too much good stuff out there to limit yourself like that. After years of collecting BL novels, I eventually lost my Black Lizard snobbishness.

But, still, when I notice a writer gets the BL treatment, I can't help but think that he's somehow made the big leagues.

Which brings us to Joe R. Lansdale, a prolific master of just about any genre you could care to mention (except, perhaps, bodice rippers – but he's still got a ton of books in him, give him time), whose backlist is getting the BL treatment. Recently, his long-running Hap and Leonard series made the jump and the first two novels in the series - Savage Season and Mucho Mojo - are available in BL editions.

My recommendation: skip the intro and jump right into the second book.

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The former, which introduces of to Hap, a ex-hippie turned manual laborer, and his buddy Leonard, a gay African American Vietnam War vet, is marred by very uneven pacing and unseemly self-congratulatory streak regarding Leonard. For their maiden adventure, Hap's ex-wife, a Southern siren who ditched when Hap was serving time for refusing to be drafted, convinces Hap and Leonard to join up with an odd batch of over-the-hill radicals to find a gangster's missing loot. The premise is promising and, when he's on the case, Lansdale's unique mix of aw-shucks tall-tale country boy language and hardboiled chops make for fun reading. Unfortunately, after a short set up, the novel loses its way for nearly 80 pages, spinning its wheels in navel-gazing reassessments of the 1960s. There's also something distracting about Lansdale's use of Leonard. It's like Lansdale is worried that readers won't give him credit enough for having a black gay character. Too often he functions solely as the book's "have you met my black gay friend" token.

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Savage Season is an inauspicious opener, but Mucho Mojo rewards you amply for keeping the faith. We still get the nifty country noir narration, but the plot – involving a serial child murderer who may be connected to events in Leonard's past – is tightly constructed, the pacing excellent, and the mystery genuinely engaging. A subplot involving a feud with the gang that runs the local crack house and a romantic entanglement between Hap and a forceful but cynical young lawyer are entertaining, but never derail the main story. Even the characterization is much improved: Hap and Leonard act like friends who have known one another for years and not a narrator and his PC sidekick. A tougher, smarter, better executed work on almost every level, Mucho Mojo is a real treat.