A very specific Friday Five this week, to celebrate the release of Paradise Sky, the new Western from Joe Lansdale. Lansdale is the author of everything from the bizarro horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep to the apocalyptic creepiness of The Drive-In to the steampunk hijinks of Zeppelins West to the rural noir of The Thicket to the long-running Hap and Leonard mysteries.
He is a personal favourite not only for his versatility, but for the incredible quality. Whatever Lansdale's writing, be it fun or somber, humorous or horrific, it is always a delight to read.
So... where to start? Or, if you've nibbled on a bit of Lansdale's writing, what to try next? Below, five of my favourites, all from different genres...
Savage Season (1990)
Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are one of the best detective duos in fiction, full stop. Imagine Sherlock and Watson, except without money, education, superhuman talents, a medical degree or any sense of Victorian dignity. So, really, don't imagine them at all. Hap and Leonard are both washed out West Texans ... general do-gooders, with day jobs that range from working at a deck chair factory to dubious 'security' gigs.
Hap thinks of himself as an ex-hippie pacifist (he's not, really) and Leonard is 100% pure hardness (except for his love of vanilla cookies) - as you'd need to be as a gay black man in rural Texas. Savage Season not only introduces the duo, but is an excellent example of one of their classic darkly comedic adventures, with betrayal, skulduggery, sleazebags and... a rather powerful emotional core.
And, to sneak in two more books... my favourites in the long-running series: Bad Chili (1997), which really is, um, chili noir? And Captains Courageous (2001) which has always felt, to me, like the emotional crunch point of the series, as Hap addresses the man he's become.
Hap and Leonard is being filmed for television, but it looks so good - and the casting is so perfect - that I'm actually reluctant to talk about it, for fear that the whole thing is some sort of cruel and complicated joke.
A pair of revisionist Westerns, and I'd be hard-pressed to choose between them. Paradise Sky is the sky of Nat "Deadeye Dick" Love - a young man who is chased from his home by some racist bastards and winds up serving as a Buffalo Soldier and gunslinger. There's some Deadwood in this (literally, actually), as Love brushes up against the other legendary shootists and cowboys of the era. A combination of historical fiction and outright fable, Paradise Sky is a gritty - and weirdly charming - look at the real heroes of the Wild West.
Sunset and Sawdust, despite taking place later, during the Great Depression, has similar themes - although Sunset Jones is an entirely (sadly) fictional character. The book begins with Sunset killing her rapist husband, then assuming his role as constable. Outspoken, relentless and fiercely independent, Sunset's exactly the sort of law that the town needs - and exactly the person they don't want to bring it. Again a combination of gritty realism and inspirational heroism, Sunset and Sawdust is a terrific, if unconventional, take on the genre.
Razored Saddles (1989)
...for gritty... and unconventional... it is hard to beat one of Lansdale's early forays into anthologising. This strange little volume is one of the defining Weird Western works (Lansdale calls it "Cowpunk" in the introduction), and contains everything from the ghastly to the post-apocalyptic. Lansdale's own "The Job" is one of the collection's best moments, although Robert Petitt's "Razored Saddles" is delightfully macabre SF and " Chet Williamson's "Yore Skin's..." gave me nightmares. Lansdale's selections showcase the potential that comes from taking Western archetypes and symbols and having a play with them - something he's done himself on many occasions.
The Bottoms (2000)
A brutal coming of age novel disguised as a crime thriller. Again in Texas (East, this time), but set during the Depression, The Bottoms follows a young boy as he grows up - rapidly - in an era of racial tension and burgeoning violence. Although a dark book about a dark time, The Bottoms is also somewhat reassuring: people can be flawed and broken and downright nasty, but even with all the odds stacked against it, goodness can shine through.
Lansdale has written a few books along this theme, including the equally magnificent A Fine Dark Line (which, for bonus points, also weaves in Lansdale's passion for cinema, and its role in bringing people together).
These are five (well, and then some) of my favourites. Which Lansdale books did you enjoy the most?