“Razorblade Tears” by S.A. Cosby; Flatiron Books (336 pages, $26.99)
Because of my work, I usually read two or three books at a time, switching around after a few chapters and taking several days or more to finish a book.
Once in a while, though, a book grabs me by the shirt, gets up in my face and says, “Let’s ride.” “Razorblade Tears” is one of those, and what a ride it is. I sat down in my comfy chair, cracked it open and didn’t get up until I’d finished it five hours later, holding my breath most of the way — except when I was laughing out loud.
This is the second year in a row that author S.A. Cosby has dominated the summer crime thriller scene. His Blacktop Wasteland blew readers’ minds in 2020, and he keeps the pedal to the metal with “Razorblade Tears,” which might be even better.
Both books are set in fictional Red Hill County in southern Virginia, a state that is Cosby’s home turf. The main characters in “Razorblade Tears” are Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins, a highly unlikely pair who at first despise each other just on the basis of race — Ike’s Black, Buddy Lee is white.
But they have a couple of things in common. Ike and Buddy Lee are both middle-aged ex-convicts with violent pasts. Ike changed his life after prison; starting with a “rickety riding mower and a rusty sling blade,” he’s built a successful landscaping business. It’s bought a comfortable home for him and his wife, Mya, a nurse, and put their son, Isaiah, through college. Buddy Lee’s approach to staying out of jail has been less ambitious: He lives in a rundown trailer, drives a rattletrap truck and works intermittently in order to stay drunk as much as possible.
Their other common bond is their sons. Isaiah married Buddy Lee’s son, Derek, and they had a daughter, Arianna. As the book begins, their families learn that Isaiah and Derek have been murdered, gunned down on the sidewalk outside a wine shop in downtown Richmond.
Both fathers were estranged from their sons, unable to accept their sexuality, but they’re devastated by the murders. Ike and Mya take in 3-year-old Arianna. Isaiah was her biological father, and it tears at Ike’s heart to see the girl’s resemblance to him.
To no one’s surprise, the police seem unenthused about investigating the deaths of an interracial gay couple, and within weeks they declare the case inactive.
Buddy Lee comes to Ike, proposing they investigate — and avenge. Ike resists, but changes his mind when their sons’ gravestone is vandalized.
“Ike wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty,” Cosby writes. “He wasn’t afraid to spill blood. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop.”
Neither man thinks the shootings were random, or even a hate crime; they have all the earmarks of a professional hit. Because they know so little about their sons’ daily lives, they start with their employers. Derek worked at a high-end bakery that seems like a dead end. But Isaiah was a reporter for the Rainbow Review, a small journal aimed at the local LGBTQ community.
“Typically our stories aren’t the kind that can get you killed,” its managing editor tells Ike and Buddy Lee. “Being Black and gay usually does a pretty god job of that.”
But the fathers are soon following a frightening trail that leads to a brutal biker gang, a music mogul, a mysterious voice on the phone and an elusive young woman called Tangerine.
On that road, Ike’s and Buddy Lee’s old criminal skills come in very handy. Make no mistake, this book brims with violence. If you do not want to read about the slinging of blood, the firing of many guns and the non-recommended uses of lawn care implements, read elsewhere.
The exuberant but choreographed violence in “Razorblade Tears” might remind you of Quentin Tarantino’s films, just one of the influences that struck me. Another is the mighty Elmore Leonard — like him, Cosby can create a vivid character sketch in a few lines and knows how to counter the darkest situations with humor.
Much of the wit comes in the banter between Ike and Buddy Lee as their strange partnership progresses. Some of it is found in offhand moments, like this one as Ike waits to be allowed into a gated suburb: “Ike spied a silver BMW in the rearview mirror, driven by a woman with the most severe I-want-to-speak-with-the-manager haircut he’d ever seen. She zipped by them doing at least thirty miles per hour, like she had some Dalmatians in the trunk that she needed to make into a coat.”
Cosby’s books also remind me of Walter Mosley’s, especially his Easy Rawlins series, in which crime fiction is the vehicle for a deep and nuanced portrait of American culture’s long struggle with racism and other kinds of bigotry. Easy lives in Los Angeles, Cosby’s characters in the rural South, but a lot of things are the same. In the world Ike and Buddy Lee confront, as one character says, “It seems like somebody made hatred hip again.”
Citing these influences, though, is not to say that Cosby is an imitator. He’s learned from some of the best, but his voice is his own, his characters engaging and surprising, his narrative skill impressive. I’m looking forward to having his next novel grab me and not let me go.