Short version? I love Raylan Givens with a passion. But I much prefer him on my television screen.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant in the television series Justified, is one of my favorite television characters ever -- no small thing for a television aficionado such as myself. I had never read the novels on which the character is based, though. I tried something of Elmore Leonard's several years ago pre-Justified, hoping I'd love him because he has such a huge back catalog, but reluctantly decided back then that he wasn't for me. After I fell in love with Raylan, I thought I'd give Elmore another shot.
Elmore Leonard has written three novels and a short story featuring the character of Raylan Givens. The first two novels, Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995) and the short story "Fire in the Hole" (2001) were published before Justified began, and the final book, Raylan, was published during the run of the series.
Here are my non-spoilery impressions of all four works.
This is the first book by Elmore Leonard featuring the character of Raylan Givens. I found Pronto reasonably engaging and easy to read.
In the process of trying to protect Harry, Raylan runs afoul of a vicious Italian hit man named Tommy Bucks, and travels to Italy on his own dime. (Tommy Bucks is a character we meet in the pilot episode of Justified.) Throughout the novel, Raylan is much like his television counterpart, which made him familiar and comfortable for me. Elmore Leonard has an accessible, friendly storytelling style. His good guys and bad guys tend to feel like real people, which is also one of the strengths of the television series.
Riding the Rap (1995)
The second novel begins with a bit more excitement than Pronto, but I ended up liking it less; I kept putting it down, and it took me awhile to finish. That might be because it again features the unlikeable bookie, Harry Arno, who again gets into trouble through no fault of his own. I did like the character of Reverend Dawn, an oddball as well as a genuine psychic (sound familiar, Justified fans?). There is local color (still Florida), some fairly distasteful bad guys, and Raylan's rather slow breakup with his current honey. There are also scenes that I recognized from Justified episodes.
Of course, the reason I was reading the books was front and center. Book Raylan again felt like series Raylan, inner-directed, cleverer than he appears to be and ready to bend the law to keep within its spirit. I thought it was interesting that both Pronto and Riding the Rap were about Raylan getting involved with bad guys outside of the confines of his job. He has a serious interest in justice; it's personal to him.
"Fire in the Hole" (Short Story: 2001)
I liked this one the best so far, probably because it was the basis of the Justified pilot episode; if you saw the pilot, you know pretty much what happens. Since it was a short story, it was also a lot tighter and more densely plotted than the first two novels.
The action moved from Florida to Harlan County, Kentucky, which made me happy because Raylan Givens as a character works a lot better in Kentucky. I must also mention that I found the character of Boyd Crowder completely unappealing when he wasn't transformed by Walton Goggins's acting talent. Although I did find the end quite moving.
Raylan (Novel: 2012)
I can't recall where I saw it -- probably an online article -- but Elmore Leonard told the producers of Justified that they could break this novel down and "use it for parts" in any way that they chose. And boy howdy, did they. Although the novel as a whole was new to me, all of the pieces were very familiar. Actually, too familiar.
One difference from Leonard's earlier Raylan novels that I can report is that Leonard adjusted his literary universe to align with the series. One character that died in "Fire in the Hole" is alive in Raylan. For what it's worth. This novel didn't do much for me, and it was the one I was looking forward to the most. Maybe if I hadn't seen and reviewed the series first, I would have enjoyed it more.
Elmore Leonard has a formidable reputation, and I can see now that the producers of Justified have successfully translated Leonard's complex characters and clever dialogue to the screen. If you're a fan of Justified and not already a fan of Elmore Leonard's, you might want to give these books a try. Unfortunately, though, Elmore is just not my type. I'm going to have to read other people.