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When I looked I saw a gray mess hung up in brambles. The moonlight was shining across the water and falling on a face, or what had been a face, but was more like a jack-o’-lantern now, swollen and round with dark sockets for eyes. There was a wad of hair on its head, like a chunk of dark lamb’s wool, and the body was swollen and twisted and without clothes. A woman.

Reading this book was interesting, as it is an extended version of a previously published short story by Joe R. Lansdale titled Mad Dog Summer.  As such this is a murder mystery for which I already know the outcome. Of course this is Lansdale, so I simply could not keep away.

Our story begins with Harry Crane, now an old man in a retirement home, reminiscing about his childhood in East Texas back in 1933. Jacob his father was the local barber and constable for the area. His mother May Lynn was a strikingly beautiful woman who chose to marry a man whose views against the segregation of blacks and whites guaranteed a difficult life for her. Then one evening Harry and his sister Tom discover a body tied to a tree with barbed wire.

Lansdale excels at this exposure of childhood innocence to the violence of the adult world. Harry cannot understand why only his father cares about the dead woman. Slowly he learns that for the worthies of the town, such as Old Man Nation, the only good black is a dead black. Racism infects every level of the community and Harry’s father can barely hold back the tide. Soon the local Ku Klux Klan are agitating for a lynching and Doc Stephenson refuses to even help with an autopsy.

While the search for the killer continues, Harry dreams at night of the terrifying figure known as the Goat Man. He thinks he saw the half-goat creature in the forest that evening after he found the body, standing in the middle of the path behind him staring at the Crane children. Harry is convinced that the mythical Goat Man is the killer, but no one believes that it even exists.

Revisiting this story Lansdale introduces new characters and broadens the characters of the Crane parents. He excels at describing the wounded nobility of figures such as Constable Crane, trying to do the right thing while fighting against the tide of intolerance that persists in his community. An added dimension is given to his relationship with his wife with the introduction of Red, a former rival for her attentions. Lansdale also includes the character of Harry’s grandmother, who takes an interest in the murder case.

New scenes such as the autopsy of Jelda May Sykes help to broaden the themes of the novel, with Jacob being forced to travel to a neighbouring town to consult with a black doctor as Doc Stephenson refuses to treat the body for fear of upsetting the local whites. It is a credit to Lansdale’s abilities as a writer that even during a sequence describing the carving up of a corpse he manages to rise a chuckle, when Doc Tinn explains to the astonished Jacob the properties of the clitoris. It is this reliance on gallows humour that I appreciate most in Lansdale’s writing, combined with a matter-of-fact view on morality.

Knowing the identity of the murderer allowed me to concentrate on the language and imagery of the novel. Lansdale is a master of quick dialogue and captures the innocent perspective of a child perfectly. Recommended for fans of a decent murder mystery.

Leonard started the car as the brothers came out of the café, stood on the sidewalk and looked at us. Leonard watched them a moment, backed out and drove off.

‘Trouble?’ he asked.

‘No. But I will say this. It’s not every day you can actually step into a science-fiction episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance.’

Joe R. Lansdale has written dozens of books, contributed to a number of short story collections, comic book anthologies and even had some film adaptations of his work. So why is it so damned hard for me to track down his Hap and Leonard series. I have evolved a habit of snatching his books off the shelf as soon as I see them. I read the fourth book Bad Chilli first, then the second Mucho Mojo and this morning on the train to Sydney finished the third. Consequently I have a very confusing understanding of this pair of righteous country boys’ adventures, kicking ass and righting wrongs across Texas. And I don’t care.

Hap Collins is still blue after having been dumped by his lover Florida for the local police lieutenant in the last book. The only interruptions in his moping are provided by his best friend Leonard’s habit of burning the local crackhouse to the ground. This being the third experiment with arson, Lieutenant Marvin Hanson has them brought to the station and offers the pair a deal. He agrees to look the other way one more time, if they run a little errand for him. Florida has vanished. Last Marvin heard she was chasing down a lead on a story involving a possible wrongful death in police custody and voodoo rites in a place called Grovetown. If Hap and Leonard have a look around and see if Florida is okay, he’ll let bygones be bygones and drop the arson charges.

Leonard agrees to the deal, despite the Kmart-loving police sergeant Charlie’s warnings of the dangers a black man would likely face in Grovetown. Apparently the clocks stopped there some time back in the sixties. Civil rights are seen as a liberal conspiracy and an offshoot of the Klan holds great sway in the town. Hap and Leonard march into Grovetown ready to bust heads, but find themselves up against bigger odds than they expected. The local sheriff has a ruptured testicle and a permanent bad mood. He welcomes the pair with a death threat. There is no sign of Florida anywhere and the ‘victim’, who’s memory she was trying to defend was a hateful son of a blues legend who enticed a record company rep with the promise of undiscovered music tapes and murdered him for his wallet. Everywhere the pair go, it seems they have big, fat targets scrawled on their backs. Maybe they should have just agreed to do time for burning down the crackhouse?

Lansdale has a filthy sense of humour, a love of confounding expectations and inverting traditional notions of machismo. Hap and Leonard often find themselves beaten and bloody after a fight, but are always ready with another quip to aggravate their opponents. They just don’t know when to stop. Split down the middle they are a very opposite duo. Hap is white, votes Democrat, hates guns and tries to see the best in folks. Leonard is black, gay, Republican and just loves cracking heads. Also he plain distrusts most people and often seems to be correct in his assessments.

There is a great moment when Leonard tries to explain to his boyfriend Raul that what he and Hap have is a bit like love. It reminded me of a speech I saw Sean Connery give once at the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. There were sniggers when he referred to Brokeback Mountain as an example of male friendship, but jokes aside, I think he knew exactly what he was saying. Lansdale is interested in what makes a man, a man. Leonard is homosexual, but tough as nails and macho as they come. Hap is ruled by his emotions, but acts according to firm principles of honour. The pair also are skilled in Korean martial arts, something of a hobby of Lansdale himself. Whenever I try to describe these books, I often say try to imagine Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, as played by Chuck Norris.

Blackly comic, offensive, filthy and laugh out loud funny, if you haven’t been in Hap and Leonard’s company yet, I’d advise you to look them up some day.

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