Art, that shooting was Justified

cover flatIf you’re like me, tomorrow night’s series finale of Justified will be bitter sweet. Oh, I’ve been eagerly anticipating this showdown between Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder for, what’s it been, five years? But knowing that this is it and there will be no more episodes of Justified, that’s just sad to me.

When the series first started, my oldest son and I were addicted. Until this season, our Tuesday nights were spent together watching nearly all the episodes. We talked about the show. Every Tuesday when Justified was in season, I would make the same joke at the dinner table in the hopes of getting Harrison excited for that night’s episode.

In my best Nick Searcy voice I would say, “Raylan, did you have to shoot that man?”

And then in my best Timothy Olyphant voice I would reply, “Art, that shooting was justified.”

It was a cheesy joke, but we enjoyed it at the dinner table. Tomorrow will be my last opportunity to make my joke, and I’m sure there will be a tear in my eye when I say to Harrison, “Art, that shooting was justified.”

This season Harrison and I have not watched many of the episodes together. As often happens to fathers of teenagers, I’ve lost out to time with his girlfriend. But we’re both still watching the show and I’ve told him if he wants to find his name in my will he’ll have to watch the series finale with me as it airs.

We’ve loved the show, and I think what we love so much about it is the Southernness of it. Granted, the show is set in Kentucky, and Kentucky is just barely part of the South, but hillbillys and rednecks are the same from the hollers of Kentucky to the lowlands of Georgia and all points in between, and I do truly believe that like no other show before it, Justified has accurately portrayed the characters of the South.

If Joelle Carter, the actress who plays Ava Crowder, wasn’t born and bred in the Southeast, I’ll eat Raylan Given’s hat. She may be the most convincing actress I’ve ever seen on television. I swear, I know this woman. I see her every day, all around me.

I might even believe Timothy Olyphant is from the South, too, but I looked it up and he’s from Honolulu. Weird. He must be from the south side of Honolulu. Nick Searcy, though, is from North Carolina, and it shows.

Granted, all of the characters are blown up exaggerations of Southern people – caricatures – but they are convincing caricatures (and television must be forgiven for its exaggerated characters, because if the characters on TV were all normal people like you and me who would watch?).

When I started writing the Moses Calhoun short stories a couple of years ago, Justified (more the TV show than Elmore Leonard’s books) was never far from my mind.

The stories are set in a rural Georgia county, the fictitious Williams County. If you’ve read the stories and you’re from Georgia, you might be forgiven if you think Williams County sounds an awful lot like Putnam County.

I worked in Putnam County for a decade. I worked at both the weekly paper there in Putnam County and at Macon’s daily paper as a bureau chief covering a six county region that included Putnam County.

In that time I became pretty good friends with the local sheriff, Howard Sills. Honestly, they should write a TV show about Sheriff Sills. In my career I’ve met a lot of cops in a lot of jurisdictions – city police, FBI agents, Georgia Bureau of Investigation folks, Secret Service, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, detectives and investigators, even Border Patrol. I’ve never met another one like Howard Sills.

He was raised by a former District Attorney and spent countless hours of his youth doing essentially paralegal work for Big George Lawrence. Howard knows criminal law better than most lawyers I know. His sense of right and wrong is unmatched, and his commitment to locking up bad guys isn’t just his job, it’s his life.

As a sheriff, Howard has more murderers on Georgia’s death row than any other sheriff (or at least he used to … I know a couple of them have met their final fate so maybe his count of death row inmates is dropping). He’s also been instrumental in the prosecution of not just bad guys he’s locked up but also bad guys in other jurisdictions.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in his office and listened to phone conversations where other sheriffs or district attorneys have called him seeking advice on prosecuting a case.

He really is a phenomenal lawman and a pretty phenomenal person, too. I respect him more than just about anybody else I’ve ever met.

In the 10 years or so that I worked in Putnam County, I had unprecedented access to the sheriff’s office. I had the code to get into the back of the office and I walked in whenever I felt like it. There were many days when I walked into Howard’s office and sat for several hours, listening to every phone conversation he had through the course of that time. I could review every document in his office.

I rode with his deputies and hung out in the offices of his investigators. I listened when he talked strategy for prosecutions with the district attorney.

Literally, nothing happened in that sheriff’s office that I didn’t know about.

Howard trusted me, and I trusted him. That’s an unusual relationship for a law enforcement officer and a newspaper reporter. But I’ll say this, most any other reporter could have had the same access to Howard and his office. Yes, we were friends and probably most reporters wouldn’t get to drive his vehicle car with lights and siren going through downtown Macon while chasing a murder suspect (yes, that was fun as hell!), but Howard was always very open with all the press.

The Moses Calhoun stories are based in part in what I saw when I worked in Putnam County. I went into a lot of drug houses with Howard’s deputies and investigators. I went with them when they did surveillance on drug dealers. I was running behind one of his deputies who was chasing a suspect when the suspect turned and started shooting at us. I rode with them as they investigated murders and other serious crimes.

I saw a lot of the criminal justice system – good and bad and ugly. Of course, I also covered other sheriff’s offices and other crimes, and frequently because of my friendship with Howard Sills other sheriffs gave me access in deference to him.

When Sheriff Thomas Smith of Washington County, Georgia, was dealing with two murders within a month of each other, he would give a press conference for the Macon TV stations and other newspapers, and then he and I would go back to his office and he’d give me additional information he wasn’t releasing to anyone else. That wasn’t because Sheriff Smith and I were such good friends or had such a good working relationship (although, eventually we did), but it was because Howard called Sheriff Smith and said, “You can trust this reporter.”

So the Moses Calhoun stories are based largely around the things I’ve reported on. They’re not necessarily “ripped from the headlines” stories, but I’ve certainly borrowed from some of the actual cases I’ve seen.

So, if you’re like me and you’re mourning the loss of Justified, and you’re wondering where you’re going to find your Southern crime stories, I humbly suggest Moses Calhoun.

The stories are short and can probably be read easily from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night. The criminals are fun; Moses Calhoun is a tough Southern Sheriff’s Investigator and the plots are not too terribly far from some of the stuff I’ve witnessed.

If you’re a fan of Raylan Givens and are lost wondering what to do now that your Southern Gothic crime series is come to an end on FX, maybe give Moses Calhoun a chance.

In honor of the series finale of Justified, I’ll be offering the first of the Moses Calhoun stories for free for the next couple of days.

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