A tense, broiling, 21st-century Western with a crafty premise and a gruesomely high body count.
Imagine HBO's Westworld, only without androids and taking place far closer to our own era, and you basically have the setting of this bleak-yet-antic prairie-noir novel by Sternbergh (Near Enemy, 2015, etc.). Somewhere in the most isolated reaches of the Texas Panhandle is the tiny, hardscrabble town of Caesura (“rhymes with tempura”), the population of which consists entirely of transplanted criminals who have not only been given new identities, but have had the memories of whatever they did to be relocated totally erased. It’s part of an experimental program in behavior modification, and the community’s got some pretty peculiar rules, one being that the residents’ new names are compounds of movie stars and U.S. vice presidents. Examples include Spiro Mitchum, Greta Fillmore, Buster Ford, and Hubert Gable, the last of whom is the second resident within a week to have been found shot dead. Gable was killed in an apparent bar fight while the first death was an apparent suicide. Because these are the first such deaths in the town’s eight-year history, it’s become a priority puzzler for sheriff Calvin Cooper (yep, another alias) and his deputies, one of whom, a bright young woman named Dawes, thinks she knows where to look for a connection. Meanwhile, the parched stillness of what many of its residents call the Blinds is soon shattered by more than just errant gunfire; black vans carrying people with suits, dark glasses, and firearms appear, and the new arrivals start asking questions of their own that may have something to do with Calvin’s good friend Fran Adams and her young son, Isaac. Two things are clear: nobody in this story is who they’re supposed to be, and their secrets carry a high cost.
Every time the reader thinks this story’s turning right, it takes a hard left. But it never wanders in circles, and it does move like a championship stock car toward a climax that, however shattering, implies there’s more to come.