S.A. Cosby is one of the most distinctive crime fiction writers working today. His second novel, “Blacktop Wasteland,” won numerous awards and rave reviews. His third novel, “Razorblade Tears,” was a New York Times’ bestseller and recommended on Barack Obama’s 2022 Summer Reading List.
Cosby returns to the South for his novel, “All the Sinners Bleed,” and it could well be his finest work yet.
Cosby told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” that he considers his latest book to be “a more nuanced examination of small town life in relation to religion, race and class.”
The protagonist in “All the Sinners Bleed’ is Titus Crown. He’s the first Black Sheriff in a small town in Virginia.
Cosby thinks Crown is “an interesting character, but I don’t know if we would be friends because we have several different ideas about the way the world works.”
“But having said that, I believe he is a strong, moral, upright person,” Cosby said. “He’s not perfect and he has his own flaws and faults, but he is someone who, when the darkness arises in his tale, he doesn’t avert his eyes. He stands in the gap between the light in the dark to protect his town, protect the people he loves.”
Religion isn’t sacrosanct in ‘Sinners’
Cosby touches on some controversial topics in “Sinners,” including the role of religion, which he said he “played short shrift to” in his earlier books.
“Religion can be a comfort and it can be a cudgel. It can be used to bring people together, and it can be used to manipulate people and tear them apart,” he said. “And I wanted to embrace and talk about all those aspects. I’m not anti-religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I am attacking hypocrisy. I am anti-manipulation.”
“So for me, the idea of religion is not bound to any organized hierarchy,” he added. “I think you can be a spiritual person without being a religious person. And, you know, a running river can be spiritual. And so I kind of wanted to explore that through Titus and his own struggle with religion in the book.”
Cosby also tackles the emotions that follow major traumatic events in the book with a shooting at a local high school. A beloved teacher is killed by a former student who is confronted by Titus and his deputies. In the events that follow, the student is killed, too.
“What I wanted to do was to show how we have become desensitized to horrific event on top of horrific event. And after the school shooting, Titus and his investigation discovers that the teacher and the student and a third person were involved in a series of terrible crimes.”
“I wanted to talk about and show how, unfortunately, as a country, we become desensitized; we just move to the next tragedy. We move on to the next horrible event. But characters like Titus don’t forget about that school shooting. They don’t forget about the horrible events. In fact, it weighs on him deeply throughout the rest of the book.”
King of horror draws tears
Horror author Stephen King gave “All the Sinners Bleed” a great review in The New York Times. And he wrote that “this is a book filled with carefully controlled anger.”
How challenging was it for Cosby to control his anger while he was writing “All the Sinners Bleed?”
“I think what I was angry most about is just the inequality, unfairness of society. I grew up in a small town, and I know how wonderful that can be and I know how claustrophobic that can be. And so I know how you can be judged by your name, not by your individual characteristics.”
“But also, I know how unfair the law can be. You know, one of Titus’s more naive qualities is he really wants to fix things for the police department. He ran on the basis of trying to make sure that the police department treated everyone more equitably. He has the desire, this belief that if he just treats everyone equal under the law, that he can mete out justice with equanimity. And I believe that’s very difficult because a lot of times justice system in America is inherently unequal. And so it made me really examine my own anger with that.”
Cosby said that he was very moved by King’s review of “All the Sinners Bleed.”
“I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little bit because not only is it a review from one of the great American writers of all time, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. But it’s also someone I have a very deep personal connection to as a reader. My aunt, when I was a little kid, would give me all her Stephen King novels when she was done reading them. So she gave me these dog-eared paperbacks, and I remember those great paperback covers from the ’70s and ’80s she would give me.”
What started as ‘Black as Sackcloth’
After Cosby’s “Razorblade Tears” was released in 2021, he wanted to address police violence in the Black community. So, he started working on a story called “Black as Sackcloth.”
“Originally ‘Black as Sackcloth’ — which became ‘All the Sinners Bleed’ — was going to be examination of police corruption, police violence and brutality in America, using a small town setting as a microcosm for that,” Cosby said.
“But I learned rather quickly that I didn’t have enough distance emotionally from that issue to really write about it effectively.”
He recalls putting a lot of pressure on himself as a result of the incredible response to “Razorblade Tears.”
“It really changed my life and I really was stacking the bricks on myself to try to replicate that success,” he said.
After about six months, though, he spoke with fellow writer Eryk Pruitt who told him: ‘Whatever you’re working on doesn’t have to be as good as ‘Razorblade Tears.’ It just has to be good.'”
“And I think that sort of baseline gave me a new way to appreciate what I was working on. And it really opened up the floodgates for me. And I was able to really dig into the book and find the story I wanted to tell.”