by S.A. Cosby
(Hachette NZ, $35)
There are many worthy new writers in the crime fiction genre but Virginian S.A. Cosby is one of those breakout talents that come along once or twice in a generation.
Cosby, now 47, is hardly an overnight success but, with two books optioned by Hollywood, the last making many year-end best-of lists, it's finally his time. Cosby has a deep understanding of character, setting and genre. He's also not afraid to push the genre in unexpected directions as he demonstrates in this remarkable crime novel.
Razorblade Tears is part pulp, part woke - a book that fully lives up to its Shakespearean epigraph - "My drops of tears I'll turn to sparks of fire."
"Every book I write is basically [about] my hometown in disguise," Cosby told an interviewer recently. "I love the people there. But that doesn't absolve myself or them from the truth."
Ike is an ex-con, 15 years out of prison, who's left the thug life behind. The only outward remnant, some fading gang tattoos. Ike's killed before but that was in another life.
The novel opens with the police once more at his door. They're there to tell him of the death of his gay son Isiah and Isiah's partner Derek, both shot in cold blood. Despite Ike essentially disowning his son because of his sexuality the news devastates him and sets this riveting novel in motion.
Cosby's previous crime novels - 2018's My Darkest Prayer and last year's breakout Blacktop Wasteland (do hunt them down) - have also dealt with damaged African-American heroes shaped by the streets, race, and absent fathers; men adept at employing violence to right the world's wrongs.
Razorblade Tears covers that ground and adds in the issue of sexuality and identity politics and a redneck, ex-con sidekick Buddy Lee Jenkins, Derek's father. The last time they spoke, when Derek informed Buddy that he was getting married to Isiah, Buddy Lee had replied - "So, which one of y'all gonna be the wife?".
Shame, a shared criminal past, a search for justice and a searing regret for what might have been draw this unlikely couple together, supplying Cosby with a familiar revenge narrative that's the pulp backbone of Tears.
Unsurprisingly, the brooding Ike is no slouch with his fists and pretty handy when a spot of body disposal is required too.
Cosby mixes episodes of gritty violence with quieter moments that reveal the men understand that their late-life awakening can't undo years of taught bigotry and abuse or absolve them of their sins.
Particularly moving is a scene in a gay nightclub when a man starts flirting with Ike and the instinctively violent reaction it invokes in him still.
There's a little light relief too as Ike teaches Buddy Lee how easy even he - a hopeless alcoholic - has it because of the colour of his skin.
Getting to the perpetrators involves the pair taking on an entire motorcycle gang and some powerful political forces. It's a death wish of a mission fuelled by grief and turmoil.
Ike says at one point: "Folks like to talk about revenge like it's a righteous thing but it's just hate in a nicer suit."
Cosby's decision to tackle the timely and sensitive issue of homophobia, wrap it up in a high-octane page-turner and pull it off with such style suggest his time at the top of the crime fiction genre is just beginning.
Reviewed by Greg Fleming