In the nine years since his first novel, ''The Pistoleer,'' was published, James Carlos Blake has established himself as one of the greatest chroniclers of the mythical American outlaw life. Old-time gunslingers, bank robbers, and hookers, usually roaming the loamy country between Florida and Texas, are his people, and he has brought them to life in colorful, meandering sagas like ''Red Grass River'' and ''In the Rogue Blood.'' Blake is capable of descriptions as lush and elegaic as anything Cormac McCarthy, to whom he is often compared, has ever written. But his work is more reminiscent of Larry McMurtry's Western novels -- only harsher and bloodier. Like ''Lonesome Dove'''s creator, Blake favors straight-talking, unschooled narrators who speak in a vivid, salty vernacular, and his fiction is so readable -- so folksy, action-packed, and earthy -- it's easy to miss the fact that it is also, frequently, brilliant.
Blake's swell new Handsome Harry -- his most buoyant and polished novel yet -- takes place north of his usual stomping grounds, in the Midwest, where for a few crazy months during the 1930s, John Dillinger and his notorious crew hurtled in stolen roadsters between Kokomo, Chicago, and Racine, drinking, brawling, and sticking up banks. His narrator is a fictionalized version of the real-life Harry Pierpont, Dillinger's dashing and volatile partner, who begins his rollicking yarn while awaiting execution in an Ohio prison. Condemned to the electric chair at 32, Harry evinces not an iota of regret for the hell-raising life he chose: ''I once said to John that being an outlaw was about the only way left for a man to hold on to his self-respect, and he said Ain't that the sad truth. The girls laughed along with us because they knew it wasn't a joke.''
That's a debatable and deeply romantic notion, but you don't have to agree with it to sense how true and exhilarating it feels for Harry and his cohorts. Of his dazzling but short life of crime, Harry says simply and memorably: ''It was grand. Every single time it was grand.''
Here's the short, grand bio of our unlikely hero: He's raised in Muncie, Ind., by a sharp-tongued but doting mother ''who has ever and always been devoutly partisan in disputes involving her Harry'' and a law-abiding father (''In all his life he's probably never said anything more often than Yes dear''). At 16, Harry swipes his first car, a Model T; at 19, he's sent to prison for shooting a man in a botched attempt to steal a Buick so he can visit a pretty college girl. It's during the second prison term, for bank robbery, that he joins up with the future members of the Dillinger gang, and when they all bust out, they embark on their historic spree.
As the title suggests, Harry was great with the ladies. So is Blake. Sassy, stubborn, funny, and resilient, his women -- reminiscent of the sexy schemers who populate Elmore Leonard's best work -- are one of the delights of his novels. This time, his classic creation is Harry's girlfriend Mary Northern, the fiery, freckle-faced 4-foot-11-inch sister of one of his bank-robbing buddies. You can't help but like Handsome Harry more for being in her thrall. Among other things, this is a great love story.
It all ends badly of course, as do most of Blake's books. But as Harry might put it, Oh man, what a ride.