Although Joe R. Lansdale has had a decades-long writing career, I first became aware of his work through the film adaptation of his “Bubba Ho-Tep” novella, which had a very odd yet appealing sensibility as it told the tale of Elvis and JFK taking on an ancient mummy. Available in trade paperback, Vanilla Ride is the eighth Hap and Leonard adventure, and though I came to the series late, I was hooked by the novel’s first paragraph:
“I hadn’t been shot at in a while, and no one had hit me in the head for a whole month or two. It was kind of a record, and I was starting to feel special.”
I didn’t know who was speaking, but it was obviously a character with an amusing perspective and an interesting history. I would soon learn it was Hap Collins of East Texas, who narrates the book. He and his pal Leonard Pine, a black, homosexual Republican, get themselves into a bit of a mess this go-around when they help out their pal Marvin, a former police officer. Marvin’s granddaughter, Gadget, has taken up with a drug dealer named Tanedrue, but since Marvin’s got a bad leg he asks Hap and Leonard to fetch her. Lansdale shows a great affinity for describing action in this sequence as Hap and Leonard fight Tanedrue and his crew.
After applying a very severe beating and dumping thousands of dollars worth of cocaine down the toilet, our heroes learn that Tanedrure worked for a group known as the Dixie Mafia, and the organization wants retribution. A failed ambush ends with a number of dead bodies in a suburban neighborhood and Hap and Leonard in police custody. They choose to make a deal with the FBI to do a job rather than go to court. The Dixie Mafia no longer wants money; they just want them dead.
Lansdale has a very good way with language. He is economical with words and the very short chapters move the novel along at a brisk pace. The story is well plotted and offers good twists to keep the reader guessing. However, all the characters’ dialogue was a little too similar. Almost everyone is a wiseass, and if you hid the names, it would be tough at times to know who was talking because there is little differentiation. There was no great depth to the characters, either. The reader is constantly reminded Leonard is gay, like there was a concern it would be forgotten if it weren’t pointed out repeatedly. Hap’s girlfriend Brett doesn’t act like a woman. She behaves like a man and the reader is told she’s a woman.
If looking for a bit of escapism, Vanilla Ride is an enjoyable read to pass the time. Hap and Leonard return in the novella “Hyenas” scheduled for release in January 2011.