Like gold standard writers Elmore Leonard and the late Donald Westlake, Joe R. Lansdale is one of the more versatile writers in America. Over a span of 30 years, he's written well over a dozen mystery, suspense, western and sci-fi novels and short stories with detours into graphic novels and horror. The notice from critics has been impressive -- garnering Lansdale praise for prose "as tasty as a well-cured piece of beef jerky" (the Houston Chronicle) and awards as varied as multiple Bram Stokers for horror fiction and an Edgar for the moody, stand-alone mystery "The Bottoms."
Even so, the East Texas native is not easy to peg. His Hap and Leonard mysteries (including "Savage Season" and "Two-Bear Mambo") are written in a violent yet humorous style reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen as much as Andrew Vachss, both of whom are more recognizable names to mystery and crime readers.
"Vanilla Ride" is the seventh book in the series featuring this mismatched pair of crime fighters. Narrator Hap Collins is a good ol' boy who divides his time between odd jobs in LaBorde, Texas, and doing the horizontal two-step with girlfriend Brett Sawyer, an RN who's tough enough to send Nurse Jackie into hiding. Hap's partner, Leonard Pine, is no slouch himself. A well-muscled martial arts expert, Leonard's tough as alligator hide, which comes in handy when you're also black and gay in East Texas. But Hap and Leonard are "same alike," united in their desire to protect the innocents who cross their paths.
While Hap is lounging around the house with Brett in his bunny slippers, Leonard comes calling with a mission. Their buddy, retired cop Marvin Hanson, needs their help in retrieving his granddaughter Gadget from a violent, Afro-wearing boyfriend named Tanedrue, who also happens to be the local drug dealer in nearby No Enterprise. And with the No Enterprise cops "in the drug dealer's pocket . . . with the lint and pocket change," Hanson, who's handicapped with a bad leg, needs help he can trust. So before you can say "serious ass-whipping," Hap and Leonard drive over to a trailer park in No Enterprise to bring the girl back peacefully.
Turns out Tanedrue has some equally unsavory associates and a vicious dog, all of whom get involved and receive said ass-whipping from Hap and Leonard, who hits one of the men between the eyes "so hard I'm sure a distant relative in bad health in the old country crossed his eyes and died."
With the bad guys suffering from various bruises, broken bones and gunshot wounds, Gadget is successfully returned to her family and things seemed resolved -- until Hap and Leonard learn from Marvin that Tanedrue is dealing for the Dixie Mafia, a fact he selfishly neglected to mention in his desire to rescue his granddaughter. When the realization dawns that there's bound to be retribution, Hap and Leonard, with Brett at their side, are forced to dispatch Tanedrue and his reinforcements, who try to ambush them in a quiet neighborhood. Soon the LaBorde police and the FBI are involved. Hap and Leonard find themselves boxed in, forced to take on a dangerous assignment for the feds, which requires assistance from Jim Bob, a lethal old friend, and Tonto, a mysterious figure who owes Marvin a favor that must now be repaid.
As the Dixie Mafia sends increasingly more lethal teams of assassins to put our heroes down, culminating in a confrontation with the creme de la creme of killers, "Vanilla Ride" feels as much like a western as a crime novel, which makes for some fight scenes that are enriched by Lansdale's knowledge of the crime genre, obvious love for western film and considerable expertise as a martial arts expert and teacher. Also notable is Lansdale's outrageously funny writing, with the politically incorrect banter between Hap and Leonard about everything from politics to Leonard's attempts to regain the love of a boyfriend who's trying to go straight through prayer enlivening what would otherwise be a very grim affair.
In the seven years since the last Hap and Leonard adventure, Lansdale's writing has aged like fine wine, the violence and humor balanced with Hap's increasingly philosophical musings about the consequences of the actions he and Leonard take to right the wrongs they encounter and the price they pay for their efforts.
A rich blend of elements that will make readers thirsty for the earlier novels (recently reissued), "Vanilla Ride" is anything but ordinary crime writing by one of the best in the business.
Woods' crime novels include "Strange Bedfellows" and "Inner City Blues."