At once a narrative about a serial killer on the loose, a tale of the lingering effects of racism in the South, a contemplation of religious zealotry, a exploration of trauma, and a love story that bubbles under a lot of fear, blood, and tension, S.A. Cosby’s All the Sinners Bleed elegantly walks a fine line between horror and the kind of gritty crime fiction that has catapulted Cosby to crime fiction stardom.
It’s a dark, wildly entertaining crime novel with religious undertones — and one that tackles timely issues while never losing itself or sounding preachy.
Titus Crown was born and raised in Charon County, Virginia. He moved away and spent a few years working for the FBI, but eventually returns to take care of his father. He becomes Charon’s first Black sheriff — after defeating his crooked predecessor, under whom racism thrived and drugs were allowed to run rampant through the county. As sheriff, Titus must deal with the usual — petty crime, drugs, abusive husbands, and belligerent drunks — and little else. In fact, there have only been two murders in the county in the last few decades. But on the first anniversary of Titus’s election, a former student walks into the local school and shoots a beloved teacher in his classroom before being fatally shot by Titus’s deputies seconds after hinting about bad things in the teacher’s phone.
Titus investigates the murder and soon uncovers evidence that leads to a field full of bodies of children of color. The murdered teacher and the young man who pulled the trigger were involved in some atrocious crimes, and there are videos and photos of all of them. There is also a third masked man in those videos, and he’s still out there. As the investigation progresses, things get complicated. The killer apparently has connections to a local church and the bodies had religious messages carved into their flesh, Titus’s ex comes to town to interview him for her true crime podcast and shakes the foundations of the sheriff’s new relationship, a local far-right group wants to have a parade to celebrate the town’s Confederate history, and a secret from Titus’s past haunts him at all times. Everyone wears a mask, but as the bodies pile up and the killer taunts him, Titus will have to unmask a lot of people in order to get justice for the killers’ young victims and restore the tenuous peace of Charon County.
All the Sinners Bleed is rough, smart, gritty, intricate, and Southern to the core. Cosby understand that thrillers need to thrill in order to work, but he spends a lot of time making sure we feel empathy for his characters and understand the historical context of everything that happens in Charon. This is a story about a town in flux and a sheriff from a small town trying to use everything he learned while working as an FBI agent to track down a serial killer in a place that lacks the resources and technology of a big city. However, it’s also a novel that deals with religious zealots railing against “gay marriage, the liberal agenda, and how all lives matter.” Yes, this is a novel that acts like a mirror — and that makes it necessary reading. Charon County is a mellow place on the surface, but right underneath that there is a lot of hate, racism, and what Titus calls “putrefaction of the soul.” That, in many ways, makes Charon County a place we can find all across the country, and its issues are the same that affect many other places.
While Cosby’s deconstruction of small-town America in the South and his critique of racism are great, he also manages to explore the effects of religious zealotry and how it contributes to the perpetuation of the status quo. Some people in Charon effortlessly hold on to their hatred without losing sleep because they belong to a church that supports their ideas. Much like Obama’s presidency didn’t usher in the “post-racial era” some folks thought it would, Titus becoming sheriff was not the end of Charon’s deeply rooted racism, and racism is a disease that impacts everything, including criminal investigations.
Cosby became a New York Times bestselling author and one of the best-known names in the new, wonderfully diverse wave of crime fiction writers with gritty novels like Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears, both of which explored issues like racism and homophobia while bringing the Appalachian experience to the page. All the Sinners Bleed delivers more of the same, but it’s also darker and more profound and complex than Cosby’s previous work — which makes this his strongest outing yet and should make his fans very excited for whatever he does next.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.