With Halloween fast approaching, it seems like a good time to read a thriller, and I picked a doozy. “Razorblade Tears” is written by SA Cosby, one of the hottest crime writers around today. He has been called a cross “between Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley,” and he was the talk of the U.S. literary scene last year when his novel “Blacktop Wasteland” topped Amazon’s mystery and thriller chart. The story of a heist set in Virginia, it was named a New York Times notable book of the year, it won an LA Times award. Cosby’s latest book, “Razorblade Tears” is a revenge crime thriller that confronts homophobia across various communities in the Deep South. The premise for this story is powerful. An interracial same-sex couple is murdered and their fathers, two ex-cons who never accepted their sons for who they were, join forces to avenge their children while hoping it’ll give them the redemption they desperately seek. Brutal and tender, it’s an action-packed story that takes off strong and accelerates. It’s also is an insightful story about racism, homophobia, parenting, classism, wasted chances and seized opportunities. At its heart, however, this novel is about love conquering hate.
The main characters are Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins, an extremely unlikely pair who initially loathe each other just on the basis of race – Ike’s Black and doesn’t trust anyone who’s White, and Buddy Lee is White and has his own warped ideas about Black men. They do have a few things in common. Both are middle-aged ex-cons haunted by violent pasts. Ike “Riot’” Randolph has been clean since doing a stint for manslaughter. He’s built a successful landscaping business that afforded him a comfortable home for his wife, Mya, a nurse, and put their son, Isaiah, through college. Buddy Lee Jenkins is a long-haired good ol’ Southern boy who is described by someone as looking like a “discount Sam Elliott.” He was convicted on a meth rap, and has managed to stay out of jail since his release. He’s a totally unambitious alcoholic with a lung problem that’s possibly. He lives in a shabby trailer, where he passes out on a duct-taped sofa, drives an old beat up truck and works as little as possible in order to stay drunk.
As the story starts, Isaiah and Derek’s families learn that they have been murdered, gunned down in broad daylight on the sidewalk outside a shop in Richmond. The fathers were estranged from their sons, unable to accept their sexuality and eventual marriage, but they’re devastated by the murders. Ike and Mya take in 3-year-old Arianna, Isaiah and Derek’s daughter. Isaiah was her biological father, and it tears at Ike’s heart to see how much the girl looks like him.
The police are lax about investigating the deaths of an interracial gay couple, and within weeks they declare the case inactive. An angry Ike meets up with Buddy Lee, who proposes that they avenge the murders by tracking down the killers and executing them. Ike is reluctant, 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.” They are not after justice, though. “Folks like to talk about revenge like it’s a righteous thing but it’s just hate in a nicer suit,” says Ike.
Neither man believes the shootings were random, or even a hate crime; they have all the signs of a professional hit. Because they know so little about their sons’ lives, Ike and Buddy Lee start with their employers. Derek worked at a trendy bakery that seems like a dead end, but Isaiah was a reporter for the Rainbow Review, a small journal targeting the local LGBTQ community. “Typically our stories aren’t the kind that can get you killed,” its managing editor tells the fathers. “Being Black and gay usually does a pretty good job of that.” Soon the men are following a scary path though the backwoods of rural Virginia (think “Deliverance”) that leads them to a drug-dealing motorcycle gang, gun-running white nationalists, a music mogul, a mysterious woman named Tangerine, and an ambitious politician with a dark secret. In the world Ike and Buddy Lee encounter, as one character says, “It seems like somebody made hatred hip again.”
On that road, Ike’s and Buddy Lee’s past criminal skills come in very handy. Make no mistake, the book is quite violent; it could easily be turned into a Quentin Tarantino film. It may not be for all tastes. Cosby can create a brilliant character sketch in a few lines, but he knows how to counter the darkest situations with humor. Much of the wit comes in the interactions between Ike and Buddy Lee as their unusual partnership develops. Some of it is found in offhand moments, like this one as Ike waits to gain entrance 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 fills his book with lyrical writing, balanced with violence fitting the story, and even a reference to Greek mythology. He also manages to sneak in some right-on social commentary. When Ike and Buddy are about to go to war with killers, Ike says: “I can get a gun if I need to. This is Virginia. They damn near sell them at Seven-Eleven.”
While the fast-paced plot centers on the hunt for the killers, it is definitely more character driven as Ike and Buddy learn how to love their children, be better grandparents to their granddaughter, and come to terms with their own shortcomings. Neither is a good man, but each one is trying to be. “Razorblade Tears” combines the best of thought-provoking fiction, character studies and hard-charging action. This is noir fiction of the highest level.