Devil Red was my rookie tour with Joe Lansdale’s odd couple Hap & Leonard—a working-class white guy and a gay black man working as private investigators in East Texas—and it took a while to get my feet under me. The novel opens in a parked car, as Leonard tells Hap why they have to charge into the house they’re looking at, to retrieve a paltry sum that a dumb tough stole from an old lady. Hap is troubled by being a hired gun, and by hiring out for so cheap.
Even turning over a relatively serious business decision/moral quandary, they banter in vaudevillian back-and-forth:
“‘I feel like a hired leg-breaker.’
‘You are a hired leg-breaker,’ Leonard said.
‘This is pretty mean.’
‘He beat up an old woman, Hap. Took her money. That’s so mean the mean has to wear a hat and tie.’
‘A hat and tie?’
‘It’s an expression.’
‘No it’s not.’”
Soon enough, they barge in, swinging freshly bought baseball bats and hurling quips (“This is a weak and shitty door,” Leonard says, before kicking it in). They find the dumb tough, and the dumb tough’s friend, “a black giant in undershorts … carrying a cane knife, wearing a moonlit expression that wouldn’t pass for humor.” A knock-down drag-out ensues, bullets whiz by heads, baseball bats connect, legs are indeed broken and justice is meted out.
Afterward, Hap takes a closer look at the dumb tough’s worn-out junkie girlfriend. “The last meal she looked to have had probably came out of a needle and didn’t have taste,” Hap narrates. “I wanted to save her, of course. I wanted to save everyone. I wanted to be somewhere else as well, and I wanted to be someone else, and I wished I hadn’t flunked algebra in high school.”
Reading all this, I was confused. Obviously it’s not exactly gritty realism, and it didn’t even seem to be a mystery. I don’t guess it’s the same kind of novel that won Joe R. Lansdale (an Observer contributing writer) the Edgar Award in 2001, a book called The Bottoms, about a white kid in the Great Depression who finds the mutilated corpse of a black prostitute. Instead of pathos or straight-faced drama, Devil Red features outsized characters in stylized situations, with motivations strong and clear as home-run swings and a wash of loony repartee over everything.
Soon enough it hit me: Devil Red is a comic book. Not an Archie, not even a Superman, but a good dark modern book like Watchmen or Fables. (Perhaps not surprisingly, as Lansdale has written actual comic books.) Once I saw the outline, the pieces fell into place. I could almost see the panels as Hap and Leonard merrily fight their way through hulking villains, as a beautiful female assassin named Vanilla Ride tries to charm Hap away from his girlfriend, as a menacing SUV keeps appearing mysteriously at the edges of gruesome crime scenes and especially as the two dumb toughs reappear and assault Hap’s house, cartoonishly bandaged, sheepishly surrendering when they’re fast outwitted.
There is in fact a mystery afoot soon after the opening set piece, which helps the novel feel satisfying despite its slim 200 pages. It concerns another old woman, whose son was murdered two years before. The trail is cold, the cops have given up, and Hap and Leonard are her only hope. As our heroes investigate they stumble upon a serial killer who signs murder scenes with a telltale insignia (the “Devil Red”), and they have to find out who that killer is before they become the next victims. They also have their patron to deal with, and her bag-man, a freelance journalist who never cottons to Hap and Leonard.
It’s an intricate plot, although the mystery itself is never the point. The point is to tell a good story, “good” meaning “entertaining.” Everybody the two meet along their path is a caricature, and most give Hap and Leonard clues in the form of raucous tangled stories. The plot itself turns on fun, wild details, like the dead girl who thought she was a vampire (hence it’s suspicious that she was supposedly killed while jogging in the daytime).
In the labyrinth Lansdale maps out, Hap and Leonard don’t navigate deductively or by any other rational means; they work from the stance of mindful samurai, as interested in the vagaries of philosophical morality as in who needs an ass-kicking. That mindfulness helps determine the direction of this particular adventure. Hap suffers a crisis of conscience, and sometimes it physically incapacitates him. Much of the novel’s center of gravity is Hap’s journey to recover his ability to right wrongs messily, rather than a more traditional mystery’s quest to simply discover the wrongs.
Sometimes the comic-book feeling obscures the more serious passages. For instance, it’s hard to believe Hap’s PTSD breakdown, when the previous scene revolved around Leonard’s wearing Sherlock Holmes’s trademark deerstalker cap. And sometimes the swelling tides of emotions lurch and clang into characters awkwardly. In other words, Devil Red has the weaknesses of a comic book, as well as the strengths. But in the end, the strengths prevail: The yarn gets ripped, a good story gets told. Devil Red has a heart and a sense of humor, and a storyboard covered with BANGs and POWs.
Nico Vreeland lives in Boston. He’s a founding editor of the book website ChamberFour.com.