Elmore Leonard is the dean of crime fiction and, having written novels and short stories since the 1950s, has influenced generations of both crime story authors and screenwriters.
Having written over 40 novels and several screenplays that have produced memorable films, such as 3:10 to Yuma, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty, cable television has provided a new home for Leonard's distinctive style of quirky crime stories. Justified just started its second season on FX, typically home to dramas featuring tortured characters and corrupt behavior (The Shield, Nip and Tuck, for example). Justified is not like any other show on television, with it's setting in the badlands of southeast Kentucky, and a hero who recalls the stalwart lawmen of the old west.
Justified follows the character of U. S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, who had appeared in two earlier Leonard novels and his novella, Fire in the Hole which was closely adapted for the pilot. On the rooftop deck of a Miami hotel, Givens tells gangster Tommy Bucks that he has 24 hours to leave town or he'll kill him. Earlier, Raylan had seen Bucks blow another man's head off and he's out to settle the score. Bucks draws first but Raylan is faster.
In an age long past showdowns, this is pretty outrageous conduct and Raylan is transferred to his old stomping grounds of Harlan, Kentucky, the place he'd escaped from when he became a marshal. His new boss, an old colleague Art Mullen, asks him about the shooting. Raylan says that, since Bucks drew first, "It was justified". He fits uneasily in 21st century law enforcement, with his tendency to fall into situations that lead to shoot-outs with criminals.
Announcing his love of the old west by wearing a tan Stetson, the lean Givens reminds us of the gunfighters of old. But this is an Elmore Leonard character and he's no stoic lawman. As played by Timothy Olyphant, Givens is sly, charming and intuitive when on the job. The show's producers, knowing that the best television dramas have multilayered characters, have cultivated the character in the books and by the end of the first episode, we get a glimpse of a more complicated man in the ten-gallon hat.
Visiting Winona, his ex-wife, Raylan admits that he's not sure what he would have done if Tommy Bucks hadn't pulled his gun first. "But what troubles me is, what if he hadn't? What if he just sat there and let the clock run out and I killed him anyway? I know I wanted to. I guess I just never thought of myself as an angry man." Winona smiles knowingly, and, to his dismay says "Raylan, you do a good job of hiding it. And I suppose most folks don't see it, but honestly, you're the angriest man I have ever known." This is the first hint that Raylan, a straight shooter in many ways, has some issues. This would include a father who is a first class scoundrel and is partly responsible for Raylan going into law enforcement.
Getting re-immersed in the Harlan community, Raylan has known a lot of these hill country miscreants since childhood, having grown up in the mining community and even dug coal with Boyd Crowder, the racist bankrobber he outdraws while sitting at a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Boyd survives, seemingly because dead-shot Raylan chose not to kill him, recalling their youthful days in the coalmines.
The ensuing episodes develop the criminal underworld of rural Kentucky and Raylan's work with the Marshal's office. Throughout the first half of the 13-episode season, there is a parade of small-time schemers, loan sharks and violent thugs, all speaking in Elmore Leonard's singular style, who has said repeatedly that no one has better captured his leanly constructed crime stories. Producer Graham Yost gave copies of Leonard's books to his writers so that would learn his style and match his writing voice. The result is some of the best crime drama dialogue on television in years.
The first season teased out the potential of the pilot's plot threads by allowing the characters to follow their drives into an ever increasing narrative complexity. Boyd's sister-in-law, Ava, having shot her abusive husband, soon falls hard for Raylan, and he for her, a no-no for a shooting suspect and a law officer on her case. Boyd Crowder recuperates in prison and when Raylan visits him there, Boyd appears to have found God.
Played by the mesmerizing Walton Goggins, Boyd's newfound faith profession seems, from Raylan's perspective, like a convenient way to shorten his sentence. He thinks Boyd's heart is still as dark as his coal black eyes. But viewers are left to ponder just what is really going on in his damaged heart as Boyd grows further from his crime boss father, Bo; is this something close to true religion? As the first season proceeds, the paths of Raylan, Boyd and Bo will increasingly intertwine.
As Bo Crowder, kingpin of the meth trade, rebuilds his operation, the Miami crime syndicate sets its eyes to get revenge on Raylan for killing Tommy Bucks. By the bullet-riddled climax of the first season, it's clear that, like another cable drama, Mad Men, facing the consequences of one's actions is a running theme.
Elmore Leonard's stories, whether set in the old west, south Florida or the hills of Kentucky, feature colorful criminals and their law enforcement counterparts who share a cagey camaraderie. Leonard is the master of subtle dialogue between bantering antagonists who may have a long history but who may also be waiting for the right moment to draw their guns. The episodes often feature scheming lowlifes, hitmen, and treacherous woman whose uneasy alliances often end when one decides he doesn't need the other anymore and sudden death bursts from a gun.
Raylan's experience enables him to approach these suspicious characters and be thinking about ten seconds ahead of them. When a vicious loan shark tries to reach across the floor for a gun, Raylan steps on his hand, warning, "I shot people I like more for less." Capturing Leonard's unique dialogue and mix of crime and dark humor has made the series the author's favorite adaptation of his work.
So much does Leonard admire Justified's capturing of his prose style, he has said that the show's writers storytelling, inspired by his writing, has in turn, inspired him to write new Raylan Givens stories that have already informed plot elements of the second season. The dangling plot threads from the first season are taken up while introducing new and dangerous characters in the Kentucky hills.
If Raylan's humor didn't liven things up so, the creepy hillbilly deviants would be harder to take. I've lived in of eastern Kentucky and visited this neck of the woods at times and despite shooting in California for the hollows and hills Kentucky, the costumes, makeup and set dressing captures the feel of downscale Appalachia. And the very salty language of the cable show also fits close to Elmore Leonard's criminally evocative dialogue, so be warned, this isn't NCIS. But it is a crime series that avoids the overly familiar procedurals so ubiquitous on network television (U. S. Marshalls don't investigate, they arrest). It weds the appeal of an old western with the thrills of modern crime stories.
After watching Justified for a while, maybe, like me, you'll start speaking with an eastern Kentucky drawl.
* Watch Justified Wednesdays on FX
** This Review First Published 2/14/2011