The thing that Bill Roberts misses most about his recently defunct mom is her signature. Social security checks’seven of them—are piling up, and Bill doesn’t see himself as much of a forger. Nor as much of a wage-earner in any conventional sense of the term, which is why a heist of the fireworks stand across the road seems a viable idea. But Bill isn’t much of an armed robber either, and the attempted hold-up swiftly becomes a disaster. Bill flees, a step ahead of the East Texas law. For one of the few times in his misbegotten life he gets lucky—enough to lose his pursuers in a friendly swamp. Safe though exhausted, he falls asleep, waking to find himself among outtakes from The Origin of Species. Actually, he’s in the midst of a low-rent traveling freak show, owned and operated by warmhearted John Frost, who doesn’t deserve what is soon to happen to him—having to do with his marriage to a ruthless, conniving bimbo, her moral sense as underdeveloped as her bosom isn’t. Frost, kindness itself to his misfit collection (the dogman, the bearded lady, the pumpkin head, and the Siamese twins among others), is good to Bill, too, taking him in and giving him a job. In gratitude, Bill allows himself to be seduced by the concupiscent Mrs. Frost. Eventually, he joins her in the kind of conspiracy dear to the hearts of noirists late and soon, and if you know your James M. Cain at all, you’ll guess how badly it turns out. Lansdale shelves his funny sleuths Hap and Leonard (Rumble Tumble, 1998, etc.) for the sake of this depressing slog through grotesquerie. Let’s hope it’s just a detour.