Titus Crown is an ex-F.B.I. agent who gets a sheriff’s job, almost by accident, in a rural Virginia community. He’s Black. Mr. Spearman teaches geography and wears a coat of many countries on Earth Day. He’s white. Given the name of the town and county where these two live — Charon — one can expect bad things to happen, and they certainly do. As in S.A. Cosby’s previous two novels, “Blacktop Wasteland” and “Razorblade Tears,” the body count is high and the action pretty much nonstop.
Said action begins with the report of an active shooter at Jefferson Davis High School. Sheriff Crown gathers his deputies, some white and some Black, hoping the perpetrator won’t have an AR-15 or an AK-47, one of those weapons “designed to deal out death in bunches like a spreader tossing seeds.”
Instead of a massacre they find a single victim, the beloved Mr. Spearman. The shooter, Latrell Macdonald, is cut down by Titus’s deputies when he refuses to drop his weapon; his last words are “I have become death.” Ominous!
When Titus is able to get into Spearman’s phone — this happens in a nicely creepy mortuary scene — he finds horrifying pictures of torture and murder. The victims are children, all Black. Latrell and Spearman were part of a killing trio. The third murderer is still on the loose. Titus’s job is to find him in a Southern community Cosby describes as “a no-man’s land between people who believed in him, people who hated him because of his skin color and people who believed he was a traitor to his race.”
In “Blacktop Wasteland” and “Razorblade Tears” (and an earlier thriller, “My Darkest Prayer”), Cosby worked the outlaw side of the crime/suspense genre. In this new one he’s written a crackling good police procedural. Titus tracks clues. Titus investigates suspects. Titus discovers his unknown subject’s body-dump in a scene filled with horror and tinged with pity. Titus deals with two girlfriends, one new and one old (the old one is, unsurprisingly, a true-crime podcaster). As in most novels of this type, he’s positive he’s missed some vital clue, and sure enough, he has. It’s not a great MacGuffin when it turns up — truly great MacGuffins remain the property of Alfred Hitchcock — but it’s a pretty good one. Novels of crime and pursuit also usually end with a pitched battle between the good guy and the bad guy, what I believe Elmore Leonard called “a shootout in the swamp,” and Cosby delivers a fine climax. Then, in an epilogue, he serves up a final treat that’s worth the whole trip.
So: a well-told novel of crime and detection. There are plenty of them on the market. What sets this one apart, what gives it both grit and texture, is its unerring depiction of small-town rural life and the uneasy (and sometimes violent) interactions between Charon’s white and Black citizens. Sheriff Crown finds himself in that gray area between, with a foot in both worlds. The novel gets mighty down-home Southern gothic in places — gay men passing for straight, the illegitimate child of an interracial relationship, backwoods snake-handling Jesus-shouters — but Cosby keeps his eye on the story and the pedal to the metal. He stays firmly focused on Titus, and on the town of Charon itself. For me, the reality of the locale and the people who live there lifted this story up and made it sing.
In a 2021 interview with the Los Angeles Public Library, Cosby was asked if there was a book that had changed his life. He cited “Devil in a Blue Dress,” by Walter Mosley, which “made me realize I could write about the people I grew up with and not be afraid of my work being too Black or too country.”
There’s plenty of Black in “All the Sinners Bleed,” and plenty of country. This reviewer is as white as a white boy can get, but as someone who grew up in dirt-road, six-church America, I found Cosby’s detail work fresh and exhilarating. Without resorting to country music clichés, he gets everything right: the Safeways, the Dollar Generals, the Watering Hole bar and “Soapy Suds Car Wash, the third most profitable business in Charon County.” Titus’s family live on Preach Neck Road, and “were the only family, Black or white, that had a house on an actual foundation.”
As Titus leaves town one night, he sees “a stray possum trundling across the center line.” It’s a small detail, almost a throwaway, but like the only house on an actual foundation, it’s also perfect, the sort of line you can’t write unless you’ve been there and lived it. This is news from a part of America that’s rarely written about, especially from a Black perspective.
It’s a far better novel than Cosby’s earlier books; his confidence as a writer has increased as he climbs the learning curve of his trade. But it’s still rough in places. Metaphors like a “secret … hanging over his head like a dull sword of Damocles” sometimes clunk. Sometimes they clank: “Memories, charged like electrons, ran along the phone line like nerve impulses.” Sometimes, though, he nails it. “Get sick, get broke or lose your only son,” one woman tells Titus, “your faith will run out of town faster than a deadbeat daddy.”
This is a book filled with carefully controlled anger. One of Titus’s deputies — white — asks why someone wasn’t looking for the Black children found buried in a field. Titus tells him that people probably are looking, but not getting much help from the press: “Blond hair and blue eyes make the news.” If you watch CNN or Fox, you know it’s true.
I wasn’t crazy about the mad killer when he finally showed up, or with Cosby’s decision to have him lurking around in a wolf’s head mask à la Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. But that’s a small matter, given the clarity of Charon County and its conflicted, trying-to-get-along inhabitants. At one point Titus thinks that “no place was more confused by its past or more terrified of the future than the South.” That’s the perspective that lifts this novel, and it’s right that it comes late, when the case Cosby is trying to make has been pretty well laid out.
Then there’s the epilogue, and its one final treat. It comes on the last page, with Titus’s last act in Charon County — in regards to a statue known as Ol’ Rebel Joe. White or Black, you gotta love it.
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