Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bad Chili by Joe R. Lansdale (Hap Collins and Leonard Pine series)

In this fourth book from Joe R. Lansdale's popular crime-fiction series featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, Bad Chili, we find the two best friends discussing Leonard's latest breakup with his on-again/off-again boyfriend, Raoul (and how Raoul had hooked up with a leather-clad biker) when the pair are attacked by a rabid squirrel.

Hap gets the worse end of the deal: the rabies. Since his insurance won't cover the shots as an outpatient, he finds himself spending eight days in the hospital, where the only good thing that happens is his meeting a cute nurse named Brett.

Leonard doesn't even stop in for a single visit, and when Hap asks a friend to check on him, he finds out that the biker has been killed and that Leonard is the prime suspect. Leonard admits to everything he is accused of — except for the murder itself; he was too busy running for his life from the biker's other biker buddies.

Bad Chili is shelved in the mystery section, which makes some sense given that there's a crime or two to be solved and since Lansdale won an Edgar Award for his novel The Bottoms. (One portion of the pair's investigation concerns a series of secret videos, something Lansdale would revisit 15 years later in Leather Maiden.)

But the main appeal of Bad Chili is not the mystery, which you'll likely forget about until it's brought up, but the characters and their relationships to one another. (Speaking of characters, there's one mean son of a bitch in here like I haven't seen since "The Night They Missed the Horror Show.")

I feel that Joe's novels should be on a special shelf reserved for writers who can portray Southerners accurately but without being hyperbolic or insulting. I know people just like the ones in Bad Chili; I grew up with them, and Lansdale is the only writer I've seen really get them right.

Lansdale's humor is dark and deep-fried. I especially like how he captures the pretend-gay jokes between close guy friends. But there were many times that I laughed out loud at a single turn of phrase; Lansdale's country homilies are familiar yet original and sometimes outrageous.

And he has an inimitable way with a simile... or a metaphor... whichever one starts with "like." Like this one from Bad Chili: It was late April and unseasonably hot, like two rats in caps and sweaters fucking in a wool sock under a sun lamp. (I think it's a simile, but I always forget. I know my "who" from my "whom," though, and a hawk from a handsaw, so don't feel too bad for me.)

For those who prefer audiobooks, reader Phil Gigante does marvelous work with this series. By that I mean that he is invisible as both Hap and Leonard. Gigante seems to understand their needs just from the dialogue. This is more evidence that Lansdale's writing is deceptively skilled: it flows like water, but it's obviously very carefully crafted.

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