By Joe R. Lansdale
The fertile imagination of Joe Lansdale spins another gripping tale of the life and crimes of a naif in a corrupt land. Lansdale doesn’t just spin out a mystery, he tells a story about a time and a place and the people who live there. You could say he paints a picture, the dominant color is blood-red.
In Sunset and Sawdust the time is the mid-1930s and the place is (where else?) East Texas. A tornado is whipping through the land and Sunset Jones’ husband, Pete, is raping her again. This time there’s a surprise for Pete. Sunset blows his brains out. With a pistol shot during a tornado she starts on a journey that will lead to discoveries about herself and her loved ones. Her mother-in-law, who happens to own the local sawmill, promotes Sunset to constable. But the elder Mrs. Jones has her own motives, and they aren’t necessarily about feminist empowerment.
Sunset is surrounded by a motley band of helpers: her deputy Clyde, a charming hobo called Hillbilly, her daughter Karen, and a the county’s toughest black man, a giant fellow known as Bull. Sunset takes on her first case: discovering the identity of a baby found buried on the land of a black farmer. The solution leads to a crisis that threatens to tear apart not just the local powers that be, but Sunset’s own family.
The forces aligned against Sunset are more than formidable. She is not just a woman in a man’s world, but a woman trespassing on man’s territory. She also treats black people in an unthinkable manner: as people. Of course Lansdale’s specialty is villains and he provides Sunset with two of his finest. McBride (last seen in the Big Blow), a Chicago hoodlum of the toughest kind, and Two, one of the strangest and creepiest killers I’ve come across.
This is classic Lansdale territory: the story of a dedicated individual who sets out to solve a mystery that reveals a deep truth about the protagonist and his community. Novels like A Fine Dark Line and The Bottoms (as well as Sunset and Sawdust) look at the dark underbelly of greed, cruelty, and racism in small town life. The image we see in Lansdale country is often a bleak one, with few heroes in sight, but that is the point. Lansdale writes tales of exceptional heroes (and I use that term intentionally) who break society’s bounds to right very great wrongs. When a Lansdale hero achieves any kind of success, it is hard won, often at a brutal cost.
Foe sheer, exhilarating suspense, vivid characters, pure-dee evil, and dogged crime-solving, Sunset and Sawdust is without parallel.