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Switching back and forth between the villains and the cops, Woodrell's suspense debut is short on mystery--but it's a gritty, atmospheric slice of crime-fiction nonetheless, verging on Southern-gothic pretentiousness at times, more often effectively oppressive. In the bayou town of Saint Bruno, two prominent black men are murdered in quick succession. First, rising politician Alvin Rankinis shot to death in his living room; then, porno-theater owner Teejay Crane is blasted away on the street by a young blond stranger. And, thanks to ugly/pathetic underworld vignettes along the way, the reader knows exactly what's going on: local mobsters blackmailed Crane into eliminating Rankin, then hired slow-witted hillbilly Jewel Cobb to take care of Crane himself. For Cajun cop Rene Shade, however, all this mayhem is fairly puzzling and disturbing; he also broods about Cajun/black tensions, about his own shantytown background (his older brother remains aggressively low-class), about his remoteness with girlfriend Nicole. But Shade hits his stride in the final chapters, chasing fugitive Cobb into the Marais du Creche swamp, where the prime villains (who want to kill poor pawn Cobb) also turn up for the grand-guignol finale. (""Oh, shit this upstream life,"" groans the mortally wounded crime-baron.) Throughout, in fact, Woodrell occasionally allows his roughly poetic prose to slip over into mannerism (especially in the interior monologues of disturbed hillbilly Cobb). The dialogue is consistently rich and tunefully raw, however, with darkly comic flights. (Says a lay brother at a Catholic ""snooze joint"" called Holy Order of Man: ""That's a good thing about the love of Our Lord, you know. He's not at all what you'd call clingy, but keeps pretty cool about the whole affair."") The bayou-town neighborhoods are sketched in with indelibly sleazy colors. And, when not straining for literary heft (as in Shade's family Angst), this is a superior piece of narrative noir, darkly memorable in its best, harrowing sequences.

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 1986
Publisher: Henry Holt