The Enduring Appeal of Elmore Leonard, Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens by Richard Godwin

raylan glock“You make a threatening move I’ll shoot you through the heart.”

Elmore Leonard wrote some of the classic crime novels of the twentieth century. Notably inspired by Higgins’s THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, (1972), Leonard was an adept dialogue writer and master of the tight scene. I’ll use Leonard’s character Raylan Givens, one of his great characters, to exemplify his use of the Western inside the body of crime fiction.

Raylan Givens first appeared in Elmore Leonard’s novel PRONTO (1993). His short story “Fire in the Hole” (2012) then became the basis for the television series Justified. He also appeared in the novels RIDING THE RAP (1995) and RAYLAN (2012), Leonard’s final work, from which several plot lines were adapted by the writers of Justified. Raylan is described as forty years old, thin, and almost perpetually wearing a cowboy hat. With his laconic style and old-fashioned views, he occupies a position somewhere between a modern law enforcer and a Western cowboy. But most of all he is a hard enforcer of the law.

raylan ice cream Raylan is a native of Harlan County, Kentucky, and he likes ice cream. He served in the Marines, and is a marksman with a handgun and, in the tradition of the Western, a fast draw with any pistol. As the opening of “Fire In The Hole” puts it, “Raylan was known as the one who’d shot it out with a Miami gangster named Tommy Bucks [. . .] Raylan … shot him through the china and glassware from no more than six feet away.” Raylan’s cowboy image is reinforced through the emphasis on his use of handguns, and the way in which he displays a frontier mentality as law enforcer. He thus illustrates the ongoing importance of gun culture in the United States. In the movie “Pronto” he carries a Colt Python with a six-inch barrel. In Justified he upgrades to a .45 Glock.

He has an instinctive approach about people, which often leads to him shooting them. Leonard was particularly keen that the producers of the TV show get Raylan’s hat right. His official site showed trepidation about the representation of the hat in the series, claiming that it ought to be what Leonard called The Dallas Businessman’s Special—a felt city cowboy hat called the Stetson Open Road. In the novels, it is described as a flat-brimmed hat, similar to the one worn by the officers in Bob Jackson’s famous photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. Leonard’s concern is an indication of the hat’s importance in Raylan’s characterization.

While Raylan comes from a mining area of Kentucky, he is assigned to Miami Beach, Florida, in the novels PRONTO and RIDING THE RAP. His approach to law enforcement is far from modern policing methods. Leonard began his career writing Westerns, and in many ways Raylan is a return to his authorial roots; a cross between the hard-boiled crime fiction he wrote successfully for many years and Western fiction of his youth. More a cowboy than a police officer, in many ways Raylan’s appeal lies in the way he breaks the mold of police procedural detectives. There is nothing slow about his investigative process. Resolutions are often brought about dramatically and instinctively, andraylan trunk often involve the type of shoot-outs traditionally associated with Westerns. Raylan’s popularity lies in many ways in this willingness to bend the rules. He gets the job done and he does so with inimitable laconic style. As he says to Dale Cowe in RIDING THE RAP, “If you’re going to talk, I’ll put you in the trunk and I’ll drive myself.”

This traditionally masculine style attracts many women in the novels. Leonard is careful to paint a balanced picture of a man who is an unlikely hero, but worthy of the role of protagonist when it comes to dealing with low-life criminals. Raylan’s past was not always easy. A childhood friend is now involved in illegal militia activity, and his father is a career criminal. These issues do not help him with his anger. However, he remains determined to do his job. He applies himself diligently to putting bad people behind bars while protecting good people. He is not a perfect police officer, and not a perfect man as his ex-wife Winona knows. But he does have a code of honor admired by many. This mixture of old-style law enforcement and honor adds to his appeal, and his effectiveness. Similarly, his old-fashioned focus on marksmanship and fast drawing, seemingly so inappropriate to modern situations, it seems to suggest that the old ways may be more efficient when it comes to dealing with crime than modern means of policing and forensic analysis.

Raylan Givens is the last of the cowboy detectives existing on the borderland between the hard realities of contemporary American and the myth of the frontier, that enduring theme in the American psyche. His style of speech is terse and perceptive, humorous and menacing. As Raylan says to a character, “I’ve shot people I like more for less.” He is never taken in by a criminal or a situation. His professional detachment allows him to stay one step ahead, and he does, delivering justice when it seems unlikely, and doing so in a way that earns him the respect of his community, even if his methods are violent and bypass the judicial system. His traditional code of honor and gunslinger skills offer a troubled America solutions unavailable to a world of legal compromise. In this way, he illustrates the quintessentially American idea of the gun as peacemaker.

Richard Godwin