May 26, 2014

Cold Blooded Killers and Those Who Love Them: a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "Cold in July"

Cold in July
by Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications (2014)
288 pages
ISBN 1616961619 

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone breaking into your home? It's a question that has kicked off a lot of murder mysteries, both in books and on screen, but I can't recall any story starting at this point and veering so wildly the way Joe Lansdale's Cold in July does.

Richard Dane is just your average Joe. He's got a wife, a son, and a small business. He's not a bad-ass, and he's definitely not a hero. When he confronts the young man in his living room and the guy pulls a gun on him, Richard fires back, killing the burglar. That terrifying experience ought to be traumatizing enough, but it winds up serving as a catalyst for the most harrowing experience of his life.

Enter Ben Russel, the father of the slain burglar. When Richard goes to see the burial of the man he killed, hoping for some closure on the ordeal, he meets the man's father, and judging by the cold hatred radiating off the grizzled old man it looks like the apple don't fall far from the tree.

Now, if you think the story boils down to a by-the-numbers revenge tale, you're dead wrong. The big blow-out between Richard and Ben happens fairly quickly in the book, and the aftermath sees the story take a wild and unexpected turn. I could probably go into better detail that that, but I surely would not want to spoil the story for anyone one little bit.

Richard's point-of-view offers up all the fears and frustrations of a family man trying his best to keep his family from falling apart one way or the other. An intriguing consequence of the break-in is Richard's reckoning with his feelings towards his young son. He loves the little guy to pieces, but he also gets angry and annoyed at his son more times than he'd care to admit. Throw in the fact he lost his own father early on in his life, and the worries of how he measures up to his father--for good or bad--and Richard's mind if a hornet's nest through the vast majority of the novel. And I haven't even touched upon the strained relationship between he and his wife as his obsession with the man he killed, and subsequently Ben Russel, deepens to the point of endangering his family further.

I've read that this is one of Joe Lansdale's personal favorites among his own works, one that he's most proud of, and while the prose is so lean it'd make a butcher blush with envy, there are moment when it feels like the bones have been picked clean. Lansdale doesn't mess around though, he keeps the story moving, he keeps each character wholly in the moment and working like cogs in a well-oiled machine.

There's a film adaptation out this summer, even hitting Cannes, but I gotta wonder if it can capture all of the visceral suspense contained in this book's pages. Heck, if it can translate half the magic of this thriller to the screen, then I'll be happy. And if not, there's still a damned good book to be read.

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