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A Brawling, Go-for-Baroque Pulpfest

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By S.A. Cosby

It’s hard to make a name for yourself in crime fiction but once you have, everyone knows it — for starters, your name appears on the covers of your novels in letters that are larger than the titles. Picture any Sara Paretsky or Lee Child book: They typically feature the author’s name in an enormous point size with the title in smaller letters underneath, usually above a generic and largely interchangeable image. (“Close-up fingerprint” and “man in cross hairs” are popular choices.)

S. A. Cosby is not yet in the name-bigger-than-the-title territory but he’s headed that way in a hurry. His most recent novel, “Blacktop Wasteland,” about a reluctant getaway driver drawn into one last score that goes violently awry, won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the year. What caught people’s attention was not the off-the-rack premise but the bespoke execution: Cosby’s prose is vibrant and inventive, his action exuberant and relentless. He also planted a noir-colored flag in the underexplored territory of poor rural Black Louisiana, where the lines being crossed have less to do with legality and illegality than with getting by or getting plowed under by a system that never lets you catch your breath.

If his last novel’s premise seemed familiar, the premise for his new novel, “Razorblade Tears,” is eye-catching — in fact, it’s already caught the eye of Jerry Bruckheimer, who’s optioned the story for Paramount. Ike “Riot” Randolph, who’s Black, and Buddy Lee Jenkins, who’s white, are the fathers of two gay men, Isiah and Derek, who were married to each other and who have just been murdered. The fathers — each of whom has served time for violent crimes; each of whom has acquired what Liam Neeson in “Taken” refers to as “a very particular set of skills”; and each of whom has felt varying degrees of bigoted revulsion at his son’s sexuality — decide to team up and track down the killers. You’re no doubt already dreamcasting this in your mind: Denzel is the first dad and … Clint Eastwood is too old for this now, isn’t he?

As with “Blacktop Wasteland,” you may come for the setup, but you’ll stay for the storytelling. Cosby writes in a spirit of generous abundance and gleeful abandon and, unlike a lot of noir writers, he doesn’t shy from operatic emotion. His antiheroes rant, they cry, they beat their chests in anguish and pound their fists in rage and, of course, they lay waste to lots of bad guys in great gothic geysers of blood. They speak in lyrical homilies (“I’m as careful as a long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs”) and Cosby himself is fearless in concocting colorful similes in the grand tradition of go-for-baroque pulp. One character’s wound “was weeping like a brokenhearted bride”; another takes a shotgun blast to his midsection and “his large and small intestines began to unspool like a ribbon of saltwater taffy soaked in merlot.” Over the top, sure, but there’s no way your mind will not recall this image the next time you’re at a wine bar or walking the boardwalk in Ocean City.


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