How good is FX’s Justified, returning for its third season tonight? Some TV series inspire conventions, cosplay, and speculative fiction from their fans. Justified may be the first show to inspire fanfic from its creator. Elmore Leonard introduced U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the novel Pronto, but hadn’t revisited the character since “Fire in the Hole,” the 2001 novella which became the basis for Justified. The show reignited his interest, and Leonard’s new novel Raylan—so inextricable from Justified that the cover image is of actor Timothy Olyphant in character—is out this week.
Leonard has explained that he wrote the book to give Justified producer Graham Yost more story ideas for the second season and seasons to come. Given that the writers of Justified wear bracelets reading WWED (What Would Elmore Do?), you might think they’d slavishly followed Leonard’s lead. But Raylan, surprisingly, reads like an alternate-universe version of Justified, Season 2, with tantalizing possibilities for Season 3. The changes Yost made, in fact, led to a much better story. It’s possible that the writers of Justified understand Elmore Leonard’s best character better than Elmore Leonard does.
First of all, if Yost and the Justified writers had followed Leonard’s blueprint exactly, viewers would have been cheated out of the series’ best character and juiciest storyline. Mags Bennett is not even a character in Raylan; in the book, the crime-bossing parent of hapless nitwits Coover and Dickie is their dad, one Pervis Crowe. For the show, of course, Yost crafted a rich yet tragic story for Mags (Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for the role), the alternately diabolical and soft-hearted criminal mastermind who contrived a way to steal the daughter she always wanted.
Leonard is known for his laconic style, and in Raylan, little space is given over to the hero’s reflection upon his own motivations. But the author’s reluctance to devote much of his work to describing a look, or a pause, or the tension of a moment—all three of which are trademarks of Olyphant’s Raylan—requires Leonard to ... make his Raylan talk. Book Raylan is taciturn by any reasonable measure, but compared to TV Raylan, he’s a chatterbox. Right from the book’s first chapter, this essential difference is inescapable. “Give me his name,” Raylan asks a victim whose kidneys have been stolen and are being held for ransom. “I swear on my star you won’t have to pay for either one.” “I swear on my star”? Try to imagine Olyphant’s Raylan saying anything so melodramatic. I sure can’t.
Leonard’s economy of prose does help to give Raylan the same propulsive pace fans enjoy on Justified. That said, when one subplot puts Raylan in the compromising position of facing down a perp while wearing only cowboy boots, some readers might wish Leonard would, you know, slow down just a little and paint more of a picture. Sure, one of the conspirators does take a moment to admire the figure Raylan cuts when he’s unconscious and naked and lying vulnerable and exposed in a bathtub, but since the book jacket has already put Olyphant’s likeness in some readers’ heads, if Leonard devoted more detail to the scene, some readers probably wouldn’t complain. This scene didn’t appear in Season 2—trust me, you’d remember—but Leonard’s told an interviewer it might be used in the show, so … those readers who’d enjoy seeing Olyphant play it out can hope that Yost will make it happen.