The Bottoms

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Race, age, and jobs are considered wedge issues today, dividing people; but during the Great Depression they were just the way things were. So even when folks in the 1930’s knew something was wrong, or knew things could be better, little changed--even when driven by danger and fear.

Joe R. Lansdale specializes in addressing social issues within crackling good suspense yarns, but in The Bottoms he drives a wedge deftly between readers and their expectations and even conventional wisdom. People may anxiously anticipate Lansdale’s book featuring Hap Collins, but instead they get Harry Crane, a 13-year-old who, with his sister, stumbles on the mutilated body of a black prostitute and tells his father, the local constable.

Harry’s dad, Jacob, works the farm and runs the barbershop as well as handling constable duties, but he diligently pursues the murder. He finds that it’s not an isolated killing, but few show interest until a white prostitute is killed. Then the Ku Klux Klan gets involved, an old man is lynched, pasts are revealed, and order overcomes law, much less justice.

Lansdale’s Harry is a fine narrator, effectively conjuring his child’s eye view even as he reflects on events from his present nursing-home room. Discovering death and evil, community walls and family bonds, young Harry’s experience is a good blend of mystery, rural noir and coming-of-age. Lansdale boils down the ingredients to make a new brew. His plot is tight and characters full, and although subdued compared to Bad Chili (1998) and other Lansdale gems, the author’s reserved style is still deliciously indelicate and forceful--more memorable of his 1999 book Waltz of Shadows.

As always, Lansdale has a sharp eye for detail and local color (a description of a tornado is particularly riveting). Even one awkward moment toward the end--like the cheap film trick of mixing real suspense with incorrect assumptions--doesn’t detract from the satisfying work of a serious and playful writer.