All the Sinners Bleed: Grity Southern Noir



All the Sinners (2023)

By S. A. Crosby

Flatiron Books, 352 pages



You could label the new novel from Shawn Andre Crosby “rednecks and black folks.” Titus Crowne is the black sheriff of the strangely named town of Charon, Virginia. Who on earth would honor a town for the ancient Greek ferrymen who took souls to Hades for judgment? Titus was once an FBI agent in Indiana traumatized by an unfortunate event during a raid. He decided to quit the Agency and return to his hometown. Much to the chagrin of town councilor Scott Cunningham and other white elites, Titus got elected sheriff.


Titus lives with his widowed father, has a girlfriend named Darlene, and a brother Marquise who is semi-estranged from the family. Crowne’s baptism of fire takes place when popular teacher Jeff Spearman is gunned down in the local school. Titus almost convinced gunman Latrelle Macdonald to surrender, but a sudden move leads two deputies to fatally shoot him.


This is the proverbial tip of the iceberg of Titus’s challenges. He finds shocking pictures on Latrelle's phone, not the least of which is that both he and Spearman were photographed wearing raised wolf masks, but a third person kept his lowered and could not be identified. Who is the so-called “Lone Wolf” who is key to both the shooting and other dark mysteries? Sheriff Crowe also stumbles upon patterns of grizzly deaths to young black kids who are buried under a willow tree on Tank Phillips’ land. Each has been tortured and clues such as “Cursed by Cain” are found. Soon, the Lone Wolf will be in frequent contact to taunt Titus.


Charon is a religious town­–even Titus's father Albert is a believer–but Titus sees veneer, not faith. He observes a Virginia county in which crack, fentanyl, crystal meth, and racism are like so many items in the Dollar General Store. Titus remarks to Charlene, one of his deputies, “Flannery O'Connor said the South is Christ-haunted. It's haunted all right. By the hypocrisy of Christianity.” Charon has so many demons that it’s, “where the poor are ostracized. Where girls are called whores if they report rape. Where I can't go into the [local bar] without wondering if the bartender done spit in my drink.”


As you can tell, Crosby's All the Sinners Bleed is one gritty murder mystery. The very title comes from a snake-handling local preacher's sign outside his remote church. His idea of Christianity is “praise the lord and pass the copperheads.”* He's a whack job made worse by being an avowed white nationalist. But is he also a mass murderer? As if Titus doesn't have enough problems, one of his deputies might be on the take, Cunningham thinks he runs the Sheriff's Office, and a reporter from Indiana who happens to be an old flame shows up in his office and wants access to the investigation. And people wonder why Titus is close lipped, no-nonsense, and cynical.


The very darkness of All of Sinners Bleed places it within a fiction genre called “Southern noir.” Noir is also characterized by damaged protagonists. By the time Cunningham tells Crowne he is working to make sure he won't be reelected, Titus hardly cares; he just wants to catch the Lone Wolf and avenge the murder of black children. He's so obsessed that even Darlene thinks she’s had enough.


Don't think the novel winds down as Titus gets close to the truth. Titus astutely remarks that, “no place was more confused by its past or terrified of the future than the South.” Before All the Sinners Bleed resolves completely, some dirty family secrets come to light, a few families begin the reconciliation process, white nationalists gather, a public showdown occurs, people die, a statue tumbles, and Titus is forced to do some needed self-analysis.


All the Sinners Bleed is both a taut mystery and a searing indictment of American racism. It confirms that the South is indeed terrified of the future. History has a lot to do with that nervousness, though it’s not the kind rednecks want to hear.  


Rob Weir


* If you don’t know, snake-handling churches are a thing. Adherents take a literal read of a passage from the Gospel of Mark that true believers can take up poisonous serpents– like rattlers and copperheads–and shall not be harmed. Let the record show that not all adherents have been true believers.


Little Monsters: You Think Your Family is Dysfunctional?



Little Monsters (2023)

By Adrienne Brodeur

Simon & Schuster, 312 pp.



There's nothing quite like a good dysfunctional-family tale. Particularly one lurking behind a thin gauze of reputation and respectability. How many things can go wrong if the fabric tears? Adrienne Brodeur enumerates them in her arch novel Little Monsters.


The problems begin with paterfamilias Adam Gardner. He's a whale expert and a brilliant marine biologist, as he would be the first to tell you. He's charming, but also a braggart, an egoist, and is bipolar. He's not at all dealing well with his impending 70th  birthday, but he's willing to accept a grandiose party and testimonial. He plans to prove he's still relevant by announcing a breakthrough discovery on whale speech. He's almost there, he thinks.


Adam’s son Ken disappoints in his own way. He's a developer with little romance for the ecology of Cape Cod. He's also a Republican political hopeful and egotistical in different ways from his father. He loves to name drop, is a materialist, and loves all things ostentatious.  Ken lives in a big house in Chatham with his wife Jenny who is an actual Lowell, as in the Lowells speak only to Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God. Jenny, though, has always had an indifferent view of money and, had she her druthers, would have been an artist. They do have adorable twin girls Jesse and Franny–their “little monsters.”  


Adam's daughter Abby is an artist when, she's not busy being a high school art teacher. When she was at Rhode Island School of Design, Jenny was her best friend, but that has faded a bit since her marriage to Ken. Abby and Ken are, as the Brits say, as different as chalk and cheese. Abby adores the twins and vice versa, but she's a bohemian living in a family dune cottage that Ken wants to tear down to build McMansions. She's also working on an abstract piece for her father's birthday titled, of course, “Little Monsters.”


All of this is a backdrop to the 2016 election. Bizarrely, Ken actually hopes Hillary Clinton will win. That’s because he believes Hillary would be such a disaster that Massachusetts voters will demand bold change. Then he can position himself to become a US representative on the GOP ticket. Ken has it all planned, and he’s already begun cultivating important contacts.


Boston police officer Steph Murray and her wife Toni are also on the Cape the summer of 2016. They have a son Noah, but they are not there for fun, surf, and sun. Steph was adopted and thinks that Adam Gardner is her biological father. Toni is a bit flaky in that she's heavily into astrology but she's the calm to Steph's tempest and is along for the ride of what she thinks is a dumb idea.


Let's see, what else could be a problem in the Gardner family? Ken has a therapist–though he doesn't believe in that stuff and wants to fire him–but the therapist is miles smarter than Ken. Abby is in love with David, reputed to be Ken's best friend and has had a long time relationship with him. If only he weren't married! Abby might be having second thoughts though, despite a big impending complication. Adam hates Abby's art and thinks she's wasting her life. Abby has had it with her father and her brother. Adam still thinks he can charm young women half his age. Just about everyone has buried secrets that need to come out. Bet on Adam's 70th birthday party not going according to plan.


The little monster theme occurs throughout the novel in lots of clever ways. Look for clues sprinkled throughout. They, and a Lady’s Night rebellion add enough humor to call Little Monsters a black comedy of manners. The Gardners are complicated, but do they deserve each other?


Rob Weir






The Narrows: Why Did I Wait So Long?






The Narrows (2004)

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown and Company, 405 pages



Back in 1996, Michael Connelly hit his stride with his fifth novel, the award-winning thriller The Poet. It brought together two characters from other books, LA homicide detective Harry Bosch and FBI agent Rachel Walling to investigate a cluster of homicide detective suicides. Why? Because cops aren’t generally susceptible to the sort of copycat patterns of hormonal teens. Crime reporter Jack McEnvoy suspects murder and one-line “suicide” notes  from Edgar Allan Poe confirm that a serial killer nicknamed The Poet is at large. As things unfurled, a finger pointed back to FBI  superstar Robert Backus, who went over to the dark side. The book ended with Rachel pushing Robert out a window and down a steep embankment. Later a body was discovered that was said to be Backus.


There are other plotlines in The Poet that make it worth reading, but its ending practically screams out for a sequel. The Narrows is that book. I’ve no idea why I waited so long to read it but now that I have, I’d rank it above The Poet. In intervening novel time, Harry has retired from the LAPD after a procedural squabble. Now he does some occasional PI work. Graciela, the wife of his friend Terry McCaleb, an ex-FBI agent, asks Harry to look into his recent death. Terry was heart transplant recipient whose death appears to be a routine medication mix-up. Graciela isn’t convinced, and neither is Harry when he searches Terry’s boat. Terry has been looking into “cold cases,” including files suggestive of Backus’ MO.  


The FBI knows that Backus is back. Cherie Dei, from FBI HQ at Quantico recalls Rachel from a post in South Dakota, where she has been exiled for various reasons: having been Backus’ mentee, a crime involving her ex-husband, an FBI agent killed during his arrest, having an affair with McEnvoy while investigating The  Poet, and insubordination. Dei makes clear, though, that Rachel’s role is strictly advisory. Rachel finds this maddening. She truly does have authority issues, but she knows Backus better than anyone and suspects he will have altered his appearance. (Hey, it’s not just actors who get new faces!)


As crime novels go, The Narrows is considerably more gruesome than most. Backus has left calling cards and enjoys toying with the FBI. He literally wrote the investigative procedures the FBI uses and trained several of its top agents. He is thus several steps ahead of everyone else and, though he is a psychopath, he’s as brilliant as he is bold. His murders are so perversely cruel that it would be safe to say that the only difference between him and Hannibal Lecter is that Backus doesn’t eat his victims’ livers with fava beans. You can also bet that he takes pleasure in pulling Rachel’s strings, though Connelly wisely leaves open questions of whether he admires her or has a predetermined grisly fate in mind for her.


Harry and Rachel work along parallel lines until their paths cross and converge–in more ways than one. Backus will lead them on a follow-the-crumbs trail that takes Bosch to a California island and then he and Rachel to a spot in the Mojave called Zzyzx, Los Vegas, low-rent brothels in Nevada, dots in the desert on their way to becoming ghost towns, and back to Los Angeles.


The title refers to a canyon wash that empties into the Los Angeles River, either . Contrary to what most Easterners think, though 95% of the LA River lies in concrete, during heavy rains and spring run-off it is a raging stream that can be 25-35 feet deep. The Narrows is either the Alios or Brown Canyon Wash. It is there that the novel’s heart-pounding denouement takes place.


It’s a terrific thriller, even when it strays into expected places. Connelly’s law enforcement characters have attitude and stubbornness, but he prefers suspense and tension to wisecracking PIs. He leavens The Narrows with occasional humor, but of the variety that induces a wan smile rather than ripostes you’re tempted to add to your own repertoire. Instead of a notebook, you might wish to keep a blood pressure cuff nearby. I’d call The Narrows a good vacation read, except you’ll be afraid to turn off the lights.


Rob Weir