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by Joe R. Lansdale
Knopf, March 2004
336 pages
ISBN: 0375414533

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's been a while since I've read Joe R Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series, so I'd forgotten just what an individual writing style he has. The first 50 or so pages of SUNSET AND SAWDUST feature two beatings, an attempted rape, a murder, and someone meeting a sticky end in a sawmill.

The spare, throwaway style with its bone-dry humour seems, at first, highly inappropriate for a book set in Depression-era Texas with the Ku Klux Klan on the prowl. And then something clicked and I was sailing again. For, behind Lansdale's laconic delivery and deceptively simple prose lies a steel heart of gritty realism.

Mind you, there's no hanging about at the start of the book. Amidst a cyclone with frogs and fish falling from the sky, Sunset Jones shoots her husband in the head as he is raping her. Astoundingly enough, she finds sympathy and understanding from her mother-in-law Marilyn, the three-quarter owner of a sawmill in the small town of Camp Rapture. And, even more amazingly, Sunset inherits husband Pete's job as constable.

Sunset starts to attract unwelcome attention when she takes the job seriously. A woman and baby drenched in oil are found buried on the land of the only black landowner in the area. Sunset is determined to solve the murders, with the help of a decidedly motley crew of people.

The race angle is ever-present, but it's not a deep, complex book to chew over once you've set it aside. I found it was one I wanted to wander away from, then come back to. Its strengths are Lansdale's storytelling, and the entertaining raggle-taggle cast of characters. Sunset's new assistants are the dandyish newcomer Hillbilly, forced to take a job to pay for a new guitar (he smashed the other one over a would-be rapist's head) and country yokel Clyde who decides to burn down his house rather than bother cleaning it.

I can't do better than the summing-up on the accompanying press release: "It opens with a cyclone, ends with a plague of grasshoppers and in between there's insanity, extreme violence, sex, grotesques aplenty and an excellent dog . . ."

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, April 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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