Author and critic Mike Ripley takes us to the Deep South to meet Elmore Leonard and his hit TV crime show Justified.
If you didn’t know that the late Elmore Leonard cut his literary teeth writing westerns, the briefest acquaintance with his hero Raylan Givens should have been a big fat clue.
A modern-day US Marshal described (by a criminal he has in custody to whom he has just cited a scene from Reservoir Dogs) as ‘not the usual hard-ass lawman’, Raylan Givens first appeared in the supporting cast of Leonard’s 1993 novel Pronto, but by the time of his starring role in Riding the Rap in 1995, there was little doubt that Raylan was a dead-shot, Stetson-wearing throwback to the Old West.
The character did not fully blossom into life, however, until a 2003 short story, Fire in the Hole (which almost passed unnoticed in the UK), recalled Raylan’s Kentucky background as a coal miner, and American television producers saw the potential.
Elmore Leonard’s work has appealed to Hollywood for half a century, from early westerns such as Hombre and 3.10 To Yuma, to cool crime stories such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (based on his book Rum Punch) and Out Of Sight, yet it was the nurturing of that one short story and a character created almost twenty years ago which has produced the outstanding television series Justified.
Now coming up to its fifth season, though only seen by ridiculously small audiences in Britain (on Channel 5USA), Justified as developed and produced by Graham Yost and Leonard himself catches perfectly the essence of the archetypal hero whose actions (and shootings!) must be justified by his own moral code.
As played, with beautiful understatement, by Timothy Olyphant, Raylan Givens is the tough, soft-spoken lawman who, wearing a white hat, rides into town to sort out the bad guys.
So far, so stereotypical, but Raylan is a far more complex character than your average Lone Ranger. Justified is set in today’s depressed East Kentucky, an area of discarded industry, backwoods Bible-thumping, ancient clan feuds and a disturbing amount of drug-taking and organised crime.
Coming from the area, and being the estranged son of a convicted felon, Raylan finds many of the villains he confronts utterly fascinating, as if he were constantly weighing up the possibility of ‘there but for the grace of God . . .’
And the bad guys in Justified are certainly a fascinating bunch, from matriarchal rednecks to corrupt lawmen, dysfunctional Mafia families to Aryan Brotherhood white supremacists.
Indeed, Raylan’s Nemesis, or perhaps his dark shadow alter ego, Boyd Crowder (brilliantly played by Walton Goggins) starts off as a mad neo-Nazi terrorist but develops over the series into a hypnotically attractive and often sympathetic outlaw figure. Occasionally Raylan and Boyd are forced to cooperate in an uneasy alliance, but we are never allowed to forget that it is Raylan who is on the side of the angels – if only just – and always quickest on the draw.
Justified is an exemplary crime drama series, effectively a modern-day moral western. Not surprisingly, Elmore Leonard approved of it and his 2012 novel Raylan, with a still from the show on the cover, gave it his official imprimatur.
Trade columnist Mike Ripley is the author of the award-winning Angel series of comedy thrillers set mainly in Essex and London’s East End. It has been said that Mike Ripley ‘paints a picture of London Dickens would recognise’. Mike Ripley has twice won the Crime Writers’ Association Last Laugh Dagger for best humourous crime novel.
Justified Seasons 1 to 4 are available on DVD and Blu-ray, and Season 5 is scheduled to appear on 5USA in spring 2014.