Cason Statler was nominated for a Pulitzer for his journalism but indiscretions with the newspaper boss’ wife and step-daughter led to the door, and after a bit of bumming around he joined the military post 9/11 and ended up in Iraq. Discharged he’s drifted back to the small East Texas town of Camp Rapture to take up a post as columnist for the local paper. Still haunted by the ghosts of the past, he drinks too much and stalks his ex-wife, trying to find a rhythm to a life out of sync. On the computer he’s inherited from the previous columnist he finds a story concerning a beautiful college student who disappeared six months previously on a late night run to a fast-food restaurant. Sensing possibilities for a couple of follow-up columns he starts to investigate the young woman’s life to find himself soon drawn into a web of deceit, blackmail and murder.
Joe Lansdale has long been one of my favourite authors and Leather Maiden confirms why. His stories are earthy, fecund, and often dark, exploring the underbelly of society. Delivered in a back-porch storytelling style, he expertly immerses the reader in East Texan landscape and its peoples. There’s no better person at writing noir with a comic twist. He’s particularly good at portraying colourful characters that teeter on the edge of normality, yet making them seem everyday rather than caricature. And the dialogue, as per usual, is to die for: the conversations crackle off the page (the verbal battles between Cason and his editor are particularly entertaining). The pacing is spot-on and the plotting well conceived, although it gets a little pedestrian after the halfway point and the ending was a little telegraphed and flat. Whilst not quite as strong as some of his other works (the bar is set damn high), this is nevertheless superior stuff. I can’t wait now to get hold of Vanilla Ride in which Hap and Leonard, the most compelling partnership in contemporary fiction, return after a number of years.