DETROIT — Staring down a no-good, gun-toting heir to a marijuana empire in rural Kentucky who’s just thrown a dead rat at his car, Raylan Givens stands unfazed.
“You know how many wanted felons have given me that look?” he says, calm as a man on a Sunday stroll. “I say a thousand I know I’m low.”
Raylan Givens is one cool character, whether he’s enforcing the law as a deputy U.S. marshal in Elmore Leonard’s new novel “Raylan” or on “Justified,” the taut, moody FX series that has become a critical favorite.
The book comes out Tuesday, the same day that “Justified” returns for its third season.
It only takes this snippet of dialogue from “Raylan” to establish that this is a man who’s a neo-Steve McQueen, who goes by his own code, who never strains to create an impression, but who has complexities simmering underneath that super-cool exterior.
Leonard, Detroit’s own best-selling author and longtime bard of crime writing, says cool is a good word to describe his creation. “Cool, in a very not showy way, but an honest way. He is cool, no question about it.”
The Raylans of print and small screen have meshed into one of the most unusual and successfully interwoven relationships in the entertainment business.
“Justified” was inspired by a Leonard short story featuring Raylan, “Fire in the Hole,” and carefully developed for TV by series executive producer Graham Yost, whose team of producers, writers, directors and actors share a “What would Elmore do?” dedication to honoring Leonard’s distinctive style.
From the start, the show has put Raylan Givens into the rugged setting of his Kentucky hometown. It has added characters and built story lines that stay true to Leonard’s gritty, smart, wry style.
Leonard — whose work has been a constant source for Hollywood, from stylish crime romps like “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” to Westerns like “3:10 to Yuma” — was so pleased with “Justified” and actor Timothy Olyphant’s performance as Raylan that he was inspired to write more about the lawman.
The author, who is an executive producer of “Justified” but isn’t involved in the day-to-day details, describes it more laconically.
“I felt, well, I can’t just take money for nothing. I thought, ‘I’m going to write something.’ So I wrote a book and thought they could use any part of it they want.”
A page-turner with three distinct story arcs, “Raylan” brings the federal marshal into contact with three intriguing women: a nurse running a bloody medical scheme, a ruthless mine company executive and a college student who’s an expert poker player. (That poker player goes by the first name of Jackie, but her actual name is Rachel Nevada, a nod to Detroit’s real-life radio personality and producer Rachel Nevada, who says having her name in the book is “a total honor.”)
“Raylan,” the novel, is dedicated to Yost and Olyphant.
“You know what, that’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened in this business for me,” says Yost. “Tim’s pretty tickled, too.”
“Justified,” which debuted in 2010, won over critics instantly and hit its creative stride in its second season, which was dominated by Raylan’s encounters with crime matriarch Mags Bennett and her three sons. The second season averaged about 4 million viewers, up 16 percent from the first season. Last year, Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her portrayal of Mags, and Olyphant, costar Walton Goggins and guest-star Jeremy Davies earned nominations.
The ties between “Justified” and Leonard’s new novel are a happy ricochet, according to Yost. When “Justified” was created, new characters were introduced and mesmerizing antagonist Boyd Crowder (Goggins), who was killed off in “Fire in the Hole,” was kept alive.
Then Leonard picked up the baton, as Yost puts it, and began writing “Raylan.” He included a few of the new TV characters and an “alive and kicking Boyd.”
Yost recalls seeing a chunk of “Raylan” in early summer of 2010, as “Justified” was heading into the writing of the second season. The TV team used parts of “Raylan” for story lines.
“We took the character of Pervis Crowe and turned Pervis into Mags Bennett and added a son. He had Dickie and Coover and we added Doyle,” says Yost, referring to members of the Crowe family, a familiar dynasty from Leonard’s work. “They’re both a pot-farming family, a criminal family, all of that.”
Another example of the book’s links to the series is the rat-tossing scene in “Raylan.” It popped up in an episode last season.
“It’s this interesting sort of back and forth where he’s taking stuff that we’ve done, we’re taking stuff that he’s done,” says Yost. “He (Leonard) made it clear to me, right from the beginning. He said just take what you want and leave the rest behind.”
In the upcoming season, viewers can expect to see a big element from the book in the fifth episode and something else in the ninth episode. And Raylan will encounter a trouble making character named Quarles (Neal McDonough) who’s from Detroit, a tip of the hat to Leonard.
“I understand the bar was set pretty high last year,” says Yost. He hints that this season’s themes will deal with what happens when you cross a line. “If you’ve drawn a line in the sand for yourself, what happens when you step over that?”
Unlike the bumbling dads scattered through current sitcoms and commercials or the anti heroes of shows like FX’s “The Shield or “Rescue Me,” Raylan is a hero with a hint of John Wayne. But there’s also a modern complexity that enriches the character, a somewhat ruthless, cold-blooded streak, according to English professor Charles Rzepka of Boston University, who is finishing a book called “Being Cool: Elmore Leonard and the Work of Writing.”
“The title of the TV series captures this, a sense of justified violence,” says Rzepka. “It’s not a simple thing at all. It’s tied to a complex personalty.”
Raylan is unpretentious and cool on the outside — not to mention irresistible to women — but there’s a grimness to this expert gunslinger, who sometimes creates problems for his superiors when he dispenses justice, says Rzepka.
He represents “a holdover of a type of masculinity whose terms of engagement or moral code isn’t easily accepted in an age where we see many more shades of gray,” Rzepka says.
In the first episode of the series, Raylan’s ex-wife, Winona, calls him the angriest man she’s ever known. But Raylan also has a wry humor that doesn’t shoot for a laugh. “He is trying to either engage in banter because he enjoys that or he is trying to use it as a little bit of a weapon,” says Yost. “Sometimes it’s to disarm people, sometimes literally and most often figuratively.”
Yost says Raylan shares his essential cool with many Leonard characters. “They do what has to be done, but they don’t make a big fuss over it.”
There is more to Raylan than meets the eye, and you can expect to see more of him. Leonard says he’s going to put the character, who appeared in his novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap,” into another book he’s writing.
“My agent in Hollywood doesn’t want me to use him,” he says, explaining that Sony’s involvement with “Justified” would complicate potential movie sales. “But I don’t care about that. I want to make the book good. I don’t care about what happens later.”
Gee, that sounds a lot like Raylan. “Exactly,” says Leonard with a laugh.
RAYLAN GIVENS’ ROLE MODELS
Although the Raylan Givens of “Justified” and Elmore Leonard’s books is a unique character, he shares a few qualities with some iconic cowboys and crime-fighters. These cool dudes could be Raylan’s pop-culture forefathers:
When Raylan uses his weapon, he’s as accurate a shot as retired gunslinger Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) in “Unforgiven.”
Just like Raylan, the bank robbers of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) were easy on the eyes and popular with the ladies.
Raylan’s fashion sense and country twang are reminiscent of the cowboy lawman from the 1970s TV staple “McCloud” (starring Dennis Weaver).
The Raylanesque manner of carrying out his duty with a minimum of bragging is the code of Tommy Lee Jones in his role as a sheriff in “No Country for Old Men.”
To fight the bad guys, Raylan is willing to bend the rules, a tactic that often gets him in trouble with his supervisor, a scenario familiar to Det. Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) in “Beverly Hills Cop.”
When dropping a catchy comment in a tough situation, Raylan has the perfect timing and wry humor of Det. Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) of “Law & Order.”
By Elmore Leonard
William Morrow, 272 pages, $26
In stores Tuesday
Season 3 premiere
10 p.m. EST Tuesday