Reading Razorblade Tears is a visceral full-body experience, a sharp jolt to the heart, and a treat for the senses. S. A. Cosby's moody southern thriller marries the skillful action and plotting of Lee Child with the atmosphere and insight of Attica Locke.
At the center of the storm are two battle-scarred, middle-aged men who've served hard time — one Black, one white, both desperate to get some rough justice for their murdered sons. Cosby's characters are specific and vividly rendered, and he paints a determinedly bleak yet thoroughly compelling picture of their plight. A brash and unabashed redneck and a tatted up Black small businessman barely holding on to his restraint, Buddy Lee Jenkins and Ike Randolph are virtual strangers who should have become family when their boys fell in love. But bigotry and bad judgment are hard habits to break, so that happy union never happened. Their sons, Isiah and Derek, dated in college, got married, made a home and had a daughter. They made a life that neither Ike nor Buddy Lee's disapproval could touch. But none of that matters when Derek and Isiah are gunned down on their anniversary.
That tragedy accomplishes what love failed to: bring the two fathers together, and get them to stand up for their sons. United in grief, guilt and anger, Ike and Buddy Lee set out to accomplish what the police wouldn't — solve the crime and make the killers pay. They track down their sons' friends and coworkers, search their home, and confront potential suspects. But the road to retribution never does run smooth. Blazing a brutal path through the backroads of rural Virginia, they encounter a myriad of obstacles along the way.
The first revelation: The couple's death was no random act of violence. Isiah was a journalist, and a scandalous story he was working on might have precipitated the murders. It's a messy thicket they're wading into — it always is when sex and power are intertwined. Plus, there's more than justice on the line. The personal stakes are sky high; Ike has a loving wife and a business, they share a granddaughter. And with Ike and Buddy Lee's criminal records, the law is always looking over their shoulder. They're risking all that and their freedom in this quest.
Nonetheless, their first obstacle is each other. Cosby's sharp characterization and evocative prose make the tension between them as palpable as their grief. It's also perfectly evident, however, that the men have more in common than they think. Both loved and hurt their sons in problematic proportions. They were gone for long stretches of time and didn't provide much support when they were around. In death, everything is a reminder of that original sin, and Cosby beautifully depicts those interior wounds. For example, Ike's thoughts when he looks at his hands are a meditation on loss:
His empty hands. Hands that had held his boy when he was barely ten minutes old. The hands that had shown him how to tie his shoes. The hands that had rubbed salve on his chest when he'd had the flu. That had waved goodbye to him in court with shackles tight around his wrists. Rough callused hands that he hid in his pockets when Isiah's husband had offered to shake them.
The investigation amplifies these feelings as they delve into Derek and Isiah's lives, unearthing the milestones missed, the time they wasted and the ways they failed. With volatile tempers, guts full of guilt, and hearts full of regret, they rack up bodies as a matter of course. It's bloody. It's graphic. And it fits. Even though action is vital to this story, it doesn't take precedence. With writing that's as precise and emotionally engaging as it is cinematic, character and relationships reign supreme.
Still, some of Cosby's other choices render this novel something short of a triumph. Queer people are central to the investigation and the story, but not a one has a particularly strong, fully realized voice of their own. Two are dead, and another is deeply disappointing. Cosby also has straight people talking about LGBTQ marginalization in conversations that sometimes sound preachy rather than organic. It's an jarring juxtaposition — having straight characters gain this growing awareness of and sensitivity to discrimination when the queer characters are marginalized in the narrative.
These aspects of the story are discordant notes in an otherwise elegant composition. And yet even with those issues, Razorblade Tears is still addictive, arresting entertainment. S.A. Cosby might be a miracle worker. As uneasy as I was, he made me root for the redemption of two men with homophobia and bloody revenge in their hearts. Throughout, I was never anything less than absorbed and on their side. Cosby's high-octane drama cements his ascension as a prince of the literary action thriller.
A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.