January 13, 2014

Cold Hearts and Hot Lead: a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "Hot in December"

Hot in December
by Joe R. Lansdale
Dark Regions Press (2013)
100 pages
ASIN B00H2KBT7E

You don't have to do a lot to grab my attention when it comes to making a book cover. Putting the name "Joe R. Lansdale" on it is a surefire way to do it, though. I assume the title, "Hot in December," is a nod to one of Lansdale's more celebrated novels, Cold in July. There are certainly mentions of characters from previous novels in this taut little tale, so that seems entirely likely. The book definitely stands on its own, however.

Tom Chan, a veteran of the Afghan War, witnesses a hit-and-run in front of his East Texas home. As disturbing as seeing the face of a neighbor killed in a quiet neighborhood is for him, it's seeing the face of the man behind the wheel that sends Tom's life spinning out of control. He gives his statement to the police, then discovers the man he saw is Will Anthony, a notorious gangster from the area, and the psychotic son of a local drug lord, Pye Anthony. And the two grizzled detectives he speaks with make it pretty clear that if he agrees to testify against the guy, his life and those of his wife and young daughter will be put in great danger, even with police protection. With a solid sense of duty and unfailing moral compass, Tom decides to go through with it.

Through Lansdale's plainspoken and no-nonsense writing, Tom's ordeal has as much to do with revisiting his past as it does with fighting for his future. When it becomes abundantly clear that the police are limited in how they can protect him as they work to build a case against the Anthony clan, Tom turns to a couple of old army buddies, Cason and Booger. Cason is a reporter nowadays and not too much of a problem for Tom, but Booger is something else altogether. The hulk of a man is less a brother in arms than a golem at Cason's command, with an insatiable bloodlust. Booger is a last resort and only trustworthy by virtue of an unbreakable, unspoken bond with Cason. Even Cason makes it known to Tom that he is uncomfortable around Booger on account of just how easily the guy's killer instinct can be activated.

While Hot in December might feel a little by-the-numbers at first blush, it offers a palpable thriller with a hydra effect in the suspense department, as the treats are vicious and multiple, and you can never be too sure where the next one is going to come from. It's a superfast read with utterly captivating characters. There are a couple of twists that had me questioning the sanity of one character or another, but overall it feels fluid and organic, albeit in grizzly fashion by the time I reached the last page.

If you're a Lansdale fan, you don't need any further motivation to go read this book. If you haven't had a chance to read his work, Hot in December ain't a bad place to start. A younger reader might want a teddy wear while reading a book like this. You might want some Kevlar.

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