Saturday, June 16, 2018


JACKRABBIT SMILE by Joe R Lansdale (Mulholland, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Hap and Leonard are an unlikely pair - Hap, a self-proclaimed white trash rebel, and Leonard, a tough-as-nails black gay Vietnam vet and Republican - but they're the closest friend either of them has in the world. Hap is celebrating his wedding to his longtime girlfriend, when their backyard barbecue is interrupted by a couple of Pentecostal white supremacists. They're not too happy to see Leonard, and no one is happy to see them, but they have a problem and they want Hap and Leonard to solve it.

Judith Mulhaney's daughter, Jackrabbit, has been missing for five years. That is, she's been missing from her family for five years, but she's been missing from everybody, including the local no-goods they knew ran with her, for a few months. Despite their misgivings, Hap and Leonard take the case. It isn't long until they find themselves mixed up in a revivalist cult believing that Jesus will return flanked by an army of lizard-men, and solving a murder to boot.

Although I've had some Lansdale books on my TBR shelves for a little while, I first experienced his riveting, quirky world via the screen drama Hap and Leonard. Adapted from his first three books in his long-running series, that stars James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams as the seemingly mismatched pair of lifelong best friends. It's a great show - full of action, humour, intrigue, memorable characters, social issues and more - and it's well worth visiting the original material.

Lansdale has been called 'the bard of East Texas', and he has a distinctive storytelling style and vivid world creation, a sort of 'swamp noir' that is both bizarre and brilliant. It's violent and action-packed, but also funny and thoughtful and laced with character and a potpourri of relevant issues. For readers who haven't yet experienced Lansdale, it's a little tricky to offer a comparison with other authors.

He's created something terrifically unique.

JACKRABBIT SMILE is the twelfth instalment in Hap and Leonard's escapades. Working as private eyes, they're approached by a couple of Bible-misusing redneck racists who are searching for their troubled sister and daughter, 'Jackrabbit'. Hap and Leonard don't care for the mother-son duo, but their concern for the young woman has them reluctantly on the case. Plus, they could use the cash.

The search takes Hap and Leonard back to Hap's hometown, a place full of striking characters and bizarre leads. From the local sheriff whose brothers are hired goons for a cult-leader-like white separatist-not-supremacist, to old friends and enemies, there are plenty of people keeping things off-kilter. Lansdale demonstrates his deft touch for character in among all the action and confrontation. He sprinkles the tale with 'grotesques' in the Southern Gothic tradition, without falling into cliche. There's a verve and freshness to his characterisation, an authenticity to the relationships and nice moments of surprise that ensure crime readers aren't just seeing the same-old, same-old.

Overall, there is a crackling, anarchic energy to Landsdale's storytelling in JACKRABBIT SMILE. It's a quick read that doesn't feel 'thin', that is overflowing with unusual moments and characters, while also raising plenty of thought-provoking issues, contemporary and evergreen. Landsdale veers towards 'pulp' in style and mindset, but he's so much more than such distillation. A terrific read.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

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