Justified didn't start out to be quite the involving piece of work that it has become.
The FX series about US Marshal Raylan Givens (played to perfection by the intriguing Timothy Olyphant, top) started as the 2001 novella Fire in the Hole by crime writer Elmore Leonard.
Actually more of a short story published in the collection When the Women Come Out to Dance, Fire in the Hole sets the premise on which the TV series is based. Givens is sent back to Kentucky where he grew up to shut down Boyd Crowder, a Bible-quoting neo-Nazi with a penchant for terrorist acts.
The two men share a history and it becomes obvious that it was luck that each ended up on the other side of the law. Characters who thrive on the FX series don't make it to the end in Fire in the Hole.
The FX series, which returns at 10 pm Jan. 17, captures Elmore's flair for creating iconic characters, such as Givens and Crowder, as well as the author's masterful way with dialogue. Leonard has always been able to say so much with so few words, using simple dialogue that's loaded with depth. The FX producers wisely continue Leonard's approach to dialogue.
(As someone who grew up near Paducah, Kentucky, I can tell you that the accents are dead-on.)
The series also illustrates a recurring theme in Leonard's 44 novels—the thin line that is ever shifting between good and evil.
One critic mentioned that "Leonard's books put characters of dubious goodness and charming badness on a collision course." I'd say that's about right. Leonard's criminals exist in a universe in which they are indeed the heroes of their own stories. In Leonard's novels, black and white don't exist; even gray may be too definitive.
Leonard, who started as a writer of westerns and occasionally returns that genre, also infused a strong western element to Fire in the Hole. Givens is there to clean up his hometown; that he has to deal with his shady family, his connection to the area criminals and his own demons are not situations that Marshal Dillon of Gunsmoke ever dealt with.
The last season of Justified was magnificent. Just watching Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, the matriarch of a crime family, was mesmerizing. Martindale, of course, won't be back; Mags drank her last moonshine and Martindale took her richly deserved Emmy.
Season 3, which begins on Jan. 17, will see the return of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) to the criminal life.
But Boyd and his crew will not be the only ones making a play to rule the Harlan underworld. Givens will be up against dirty politicians, hidden fortunes, a mysterious man named “Limehouse” and an enterprising and lethal criminal from the Motor City.
The ever-watchable Carla Gugino will play Karen Goodall, who has a history with Givens, which should make his relationship with Winona (Natalie Zea) interesting.
As ever, Olyphant is perfect as Givens, giving a nuanced performance to this complicated character. (On a personal note, I have to say that Olyphant is quite easy on the eyes. He and Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice make crime fighting a handsome business.)
The television screen isn't the only place that will see the return of Raylan Givens. Leonard's new novel Raylan debuts the same day as the return of the FX series.
Leonard has been working on a full-length novel about Raylan for a year or so.
In Raylan, the marshal tackles a pair of dope-dealing brothers, a nurse who sells kidneys on the black market and a ruthless coal executive.
Elmore Leonard in print and on TV with Timothy Olyphant. Who could ask for more?
PHOTO: Timothy Olyphant/FX photo