Cold In July by Joe R. Lansdale (9781616961619): Tachyon Publications (c1989, 2014)
Lansdale’s gritty, pulpy, Texas-noir powerhouse opens in 1989 with Richard Dane being awoken by his wife in the middle of the night because she hears a prowler entering their home. Richard takes down a pistol from his closet and goes to investigate. In the process, he walks in on the prowler, who draws a gun and fires at him–luckily, the shot goes wide and Dane returns fire, killing the burglar in the process. As Dane deals with soul-deadening unease at taking a life, he also has to cope with the notoriety the event gives him in the sleepy East Texas town where he lives and works. But when the burglar’s father, Ben Russel, comes to town threatening Cape Fear-style revenge, Dane discovers that things are not at all what they seem and, in a strange turn of events, ends up working with Russel and an eccentric private investigator to get to the truth. Along the way, they find that they’re working against both law enforcement and the Dixie Mafia to try and do the right and honorable thing in a world that gets darker with each passing day.
Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep, Edge of Dark Water, The Thicket) is the gonzo prose-laureate of East Texas and this novel is a brilliant example of his writing at its tightest. He slowly turns up the tension in the first third of novel as Russel becomes an eerie force of menace, tormenting Dane and his family in the finest noir tradition. Then the story takes an abrupt turn into a straight-up crime novel as Dane, his wife Ann, Russel, and the competently egotistical PI Jim Bob Luke begin to put together pieces of the mystery that neither Dane nor Russel can let go of–even when what they find challenges their definitions of humanity. Finally, in its bloody and blazing climax, the novel transforms again into a pulpy action triumph. Even throughout these transitions, Lansdale manages to add another layer of storytelling to the mix, that of the psychological turmoil of the protagonist (Dane) and his questioning of what it means to be a man and “do what a man has to do”, his ability to be a good father, and the burden of his own sense of honor. All of this in a tidy, 250-page package.
The characters Lansdale creates are vivid and lively. Ann Dale is a lovely, strong woman who can easily go toe-to-toe with these über-masculine men she finds herself involved with. Dane is a sensitive, but rock-solid man, the salt of the earth. Russel is a man with a soul-sucking darkness in his heart, but is also a man full of regret and a basic humanity that keeps him from becoming a monster. And Jim Bob Luke has enough personality for ten characters, but Lansdale manages to keep him from hogging all of the available spotlight.
Finally, as he usually does in his fiction, he evokes the very spirit of its setting. You feel the heat, smell the stifling air, and taste the salt of the sweat in the stifling sauna that is an East Texas summer. He paints a vivid picture of the brimstone and fire of South Texas refineries and the desolate scrub of the country outside the asphalt jungle of the city. Texas itself is as much a character in the story as the players.
Needless to say, this is probably my favorite Joe Lansdale novel yet. And that’s saying something.
By the way, the novel has been made into an acclaimed movie by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici and starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepherd, and Don Johnson.