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Friday, May 2, 2014

Cold in July by Joe Lansdale

Tachyon Publications, 288 page, $14.95, c1989 (release date 5/27/14)

When I say Cold in July is a plain story, I don’t mean it’s boring. It’s anything but. What I do mean is that there are no explosions, no conspiracies, no serial killers, no dystopia, no political underhandedness (actually, there’s a teeny-tiny bit), no mobs (except in passing), no drugs, no cell phones, and only some prehistoric computer talk. It’s basically a linear story, told by a master writer, with phrases such as: a woman “had a tongue sharp as a meat fork” and the tree was “dripping hot ink instead of shadow.”

This is the story. A burglar breaks into Richard Dane’s house one night. Dane shoots him, after which Dane can describe himself like this, “Richard Dane, part-time killer, full-time father.” A believer in an eye for an eye, sixty-year-old Ben Russel gets out of prison and goes looking for his son’s killer, and that would be Richard Dane, killer of Freddy Russel, aka The Burglar. Dane has a young son, Jordan, and Russel intimates to Dane in a creepy confrontation that he will kill Jordan to even the score.

In a most excellent, head-exploding (figurative) moment, the first part of the book ends with a didn’t-see-that-coming twist. Which sort of hobbles this review. I don’t want to give away “the twist,” but that twist occurs about a third of the way into the book. What can I say about the other two-thirds without giving it away?

After the serious, regular-guy-feels-threatened-what-should-he-do of Part One, the rest of the book contains some lighter, comic scenes and dialogue, although the overall tenor is still dark. The humor is due to the introduction of an outlandish character, private investigator Jim Bob Luke, about whom Dane’s wfe, obviously not roused by her first impression of him, declares, “‘He couldn’t find his ass with both hands and an ass map.’” 

An unlikely team of misfits, including Dane, must uncover a secret. The secret in turn reveals yet another secret. Richard Dane used to be an ordinary guy. Now he finds himself looking around Jim Bob’s home and musing: “I went over and tested the tips of the antlers with my finger. Not that sharp. That was all right. I wasn’t that sharp either. I was involved in a plot to kill a man I didn’t know and had never so much as spoken to. There was already one man dead by my hand….”

Cold in July was published in 1989, and 25 years later it has been made into a movie, triggering this re-release of a great novel. Whatever brings this to the attention of a new generation of readers is okay by me.

There are some terrific mini-scenes within the larger story. Look for Jack, the obnoxious mailman, and Rodriguez, the doctor without a degree. Lansdale’s story sneaks up on its readers in several places. This is a classic that hasn’t worn thin, and that, I think, is due to Lansdale’s ability to write sentences and scenes that are truly original.

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