Our book today is All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones; it's a burnt-western crime thriller written in 2003 and set in 1999 on the lonely roads, reservations, and badlands of Texas and the Panhandle. The sheriff in the tiny town of Nazareth is gunned down by a vagrant American Indian with the rotting bodies of two little children in the trunk of his car, and young Jim Doe, Nazareth's deputy sheriff, sets himself the task of tracking down the killer. This task is complicated by a couple of things: first, Jim Doe is part Blackfoot Indian and looks exactly like the killer, and second, the dead lawman and the dead kids are only part of the killer's swath, so the FBI is involved, sending three star profilers from Quantico to catch a bad guy who's a dead ringer for one of the good guys.
The curse of books like this one is that the bare outlines of their plots all sound wearyingly similar. Psycho, By Reason of Insanity, Silence of the Lambs - an endless stream of novels has poured from the presses in the last forty years, presenting us with an ever more lurid panoply of serial killers and crazed sociopaths, plus the slightly-quirky, always-slightly-unprepared lawmen who try to stop them. There are only so many variations you can make on this theme - serial killer following the lunar cycle? Check. Serial killer imitating a Monopoly board? Check. Profiler who's afraid to leave her house? Check. Profiler who can't move his body? Check. Serial killer who only kills other serial killers? Unbelievably, check. There's nothing new under the microscope at Quantico.
The key is - and always has been - the quality of the prose. There's a reason Jim Thompson and James M. Cain keep getting reprinted for every new generation of crime-thriller readers, whereas Boaz Moreston and Mildred Agrew and the like do not, and that reason is their prose. On this account alone Stephen Graham Jones' book deserves a longer life than the innumerable clones of its competition.The writing in All the Beautiful Sinners is as insistent and spare and hypnotic as a rhythmic beat on a snare drum. The book is impossible to put down, and the grisly fun of it all is only enhanced by the unapologetic intelligence Jones brings to every aspect of his creation (right down to the clever little wink at the concept of anonymity itself, in the hero's name). His good characters are never entirely good, and his bad characters are never entirely bad. Even his serial killer is so frantically, mesmerizingly realized that the chapters spent inside his point of view will leave you breathlessly grateful for your own sanity.
Every scene of this novel is quotable, but I'll settle for one that happens early on: some of Nazareth's fine upstanding citizens, aggrieved at the death of their sheriff, are angry at Jim Doe because at the time of the shooting he was sitting nearby in his patrol car with a young girl he's been flirting with. After the killing, Jim Doe goes to pay his respects to Agnes, the sheriff's widow, and while he's doing that, some of those citizens come to the house. Jim Doe is confronted by Benjamin Donner, the father of the girl he was with when Sheriff Gentry was killed, and he takes a punch to the face because that's the sort of thing you do to keep the peace, but it looks to be getting out of control:
And then Jim Doe saw it, over the padded shoulder of Benjamin's coveralls: the dome light of Benjamin's truck glowing on. The cab was milling with people, three at least. And there were more shapes muttering in the bed. In Texas. Where they'd chased all the Indians out a century ago, and killed all their horses just to make it stick, then sent the sons of the cavalrymen out a century later, to collect the bones on the weekends, sell them in town by the truckload, for soap to wash themselves with.
'... Ben,' Jim Doe said, no breath. 'You don't - Terra. It's not what you thi-'
Benjamin pushed forward though, choking off the rest.
'Don't you goddam tell me what I think,' he said, his lips not involved at all.
Jim Doe made himself breathe, breathe, but still: his hand found the butt of his gun.
'You're assaulting a -' he started, then Agnes cut him off.
She was standing beside Benjamin Donner, holding the screen door open with her hip. Gentry's quail gun was nestled behind Benjamin's ear. A Browning 16 gauge.
'Ben,' she said. 'Go home.'
Benjamin stared at Jim Doe for long moments, the finally let him slide down the wall.
'Agnes,' he said. 'You of all people -'
'Ben,' Agnes said, 'I'm saving your worthless life here. For Magritte.'
She hadn't taken the gun off him yet.
'You too,' she said. 'Inside.'
Jim Doe looked out into the darkness, at the truck, the men waiting for him, all the dry, abandoned places they knew where nobody would ever look, and then he backed inside.
Agnes came in when Ben's truck was gone.
I stumbled upon All the Beautiful Sinners entirely by accident at a yard sale and bought it because a) I liked the cover design and b) I thought it would be a pretty easy book to give to somebody who likes crime-thrillers. I opened it only with the thought of giving myself a little sample before putting it on the 'to be given' pile. A rapturous hour later, I was finishing it and wishing I had copies to give to every reader I know. This is the terrifying serendipity of books - but for happenstance, I would never have found this gritty, absorbing read, which always keeps me wondering how many other such reads are out there.
I'm glad I found this copy, and I whole-heartedly recommend All the Beautiful Sinners. But you can't have my copy.