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Find more When Friends Let Friends’ Fists Do the Talking
Some authors write heroes who are so powerful and deadly, it’s hard not to assume there’s an element of wish fulfillment—after all, when you bang on a keyboard all day, it’s only natural to wonder what it’s like to crack heads, right? (Yes, Lee Child, we’re looking at you, although we’re wondering wistfully what it would be like to be you, too.) Other authors do the same thing but once removed. Whether out of modesty, self-consciousness, or mere authorial genius, their heroes are balanced and multifaceted, even reasonable. Fortunately, when all hell needs to break loose, they’ve got a loose-cannon buddy just a stone’s throw away.
Easy Rawlins series, by Walter Mosley
Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) announced the arrival of a great new talent and a great new character. Although Easy Rawlins is a reluctant sleuth, agreeing to search for a white woman only after being fired from his job as a machinist, he would go on to become one of the genre’s legends, guaranteeing his author’s reputation as the most important black crime novelist since Chester Himes. Also introduced was Easy’s loyal but lethal friend, Mouse, almost as charming as he is deadly. The friendship is—and, in subsequent books, remains—uneasy. Though Easy is often forced to rely on Mouse’s help, Mouse’s volatile nature means that sometimes Easy is downright afraid of what his friend might do. As Mosley extended his series from the 1940s through the 1960s, exploring the rise and fall of hope in black L.A., it’s tempting but too simple to say that Mouse represents what Easy would become if he could get away with it. Easy grows bitter and weary of violence, whether it’s perpetrated by a white cop or his black friend. Though the most recent installment, Little Green (2013), takes place in 1967, the depressing circumstances it depicts are still familiar in too many cities, almost half a century later. In a second short-lived series, Mosley introduced two characters with a similar dynamic—bookish and fearful Paris Minton and good-natured and deadly Fearless Jones—but, failing to recapture the chemistry, returned to his original duo.
Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series, by Robert Crais
Ex-marine, ex-cop, ex-mercenary Elvis Cole isn’t exactly a pencil-necked geek. The L.A.-based sleuth does have a smart mouth, which isn’t a problem, because he also has a flair for the martial arts. So, what’s he doing on this list, you ask? Well, tough as he is, he has a borderline sociopath, Joe Pike, for a partner. Early installments in this double-tough-guy series, which began with The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), drew appropriate comparisons to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk. But Crais, while working within the constraints of the genre, still found his own winning formula by creating a unique chemistry between his heroes. Cole’s bleeding heart is a bit closer to his sleeve, his detective career an outgrowth of his own childhood efforts to find his father, but Pike’s emotional life is much more oblique and more slowly revealed. Fans hoping for an installment focusing on Pike finally got what they wanted in the surprisingly emotional The Watchman (2007), in which Pike confronts the childhood pain that led to his lonely life. The success of that book initiated a rare turnaround in series billing, and, within a few books, Pike was playing leading man. Is Pike Cole’s sidekick, or is it the other way around? Cole is more likely to do the talking, while Pike is more likely to do the shooting, but when the results are this compelling, who cares? Both have been missing since Taken (2012)—Crais likes to do stand-alones—but here’s hoping a reunion is in the cards.
Hap and Leonard series, by Joe R. Lansdale
Lansdale is prolific, versatile, and always surprising, so it’s no surprise that some of his best work has been in the installments of his sporadically recurring mystery series. Introduced in Savage Season (1990), Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are East Texas troublemakers who, when they need money and something to do, go to work for Marvin Hanson, a legitimate private detective. Both men are plenty tough, and both know a thing or two about the martial arts, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Hap, the narrator, is slow to anger, avoids violence, and is often lovesick from an on-again, off-again relationship with his girlfriend, Brett Sawyer. Leonard, on the other hand, is a black Vietnam vet with a short fuse and no qualms about using a gun—he is also, in a long overdue inversion of a cliché, gay. Racists and homophobes, look out! Their quirky investigations are entertaining, but it’s their enduring friendship and offbeat likability that make these books so appealing. Hap and Leonard’s wildly off-color repartee provides both through line and funny counterpoint to the extended, violent action scenes (which our reviewer referred to as “print versions of Sam Peckinpah’s six-gun ballets”). Lansdale seesaws back and forth between political correctness and incorrectness, comedy and tragedy, smart-ass remarks and, sometimes, deeply humane observations. In Hap and Leonard, last seen in Devil Red (2011), he may just have found the unlikely vehicles for his unique worldview.
Joe Picket series, by C. J. Box
There’s a subtle irony in Box’s Joe Pickett series: Pickett, a Wyoming game warden introduced in Open Season (2001), is tasked with regulating the hunting and fishing of wild things in his jurisdiction. His best friend, Nate Romanowski, is a wild thing—and we almost mean that literally. A master falconer, Nate is most at home out of doors and thrives in conditions that would make a lesser man shrivel. (Also literally: Nate has been known to spend nights naked in a tree.) While Joe enforces the law, no matter how he feels about it, the only laws Nate recognizes are his own: kill or be killed, and woe betide those who threaten Joe; his wife, Marybeth (who shares an unspoken attraction with Nate); or his daughters. One is almost pure ego, the other nearly pure id: Joe is a family man, while Nate is a loner; Joe is a poor shot, but Nate is deadly accurate; Joe is rational, while Nate is a force of nature. As with Mouse and Easy, the blood on Nate’s hands allows Joe to remain the sympathetic hero. And, as with Pike’s star turn in The Watchman, Nate finally takes center stage in Force of Nature (2012), in which his mysterious past has caught up with him—the black-ops military unit to which he used to belong wants him dead. Fans who love the Pickett books for their thoughtfulness may find it too bloody, but, as a way to keep the series fresh, it works perfectly. Don’t we all need to let our ids off the leash once in awhile?
Spenser series, by Robert B. Parker
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