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Joe R. Lansdale
Leather Maiden
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2008

Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-375-4152-7
293 Pages ; $23.95
Publication Date: 08-05-2008
Date Reviewed: 08-25-2008

Index: Mystery  Horror  General Fiction

Cason Statler is back from a stint in the Iraq war, returned to Camp Rapture, a small town in East Texas, humbled in just about every way. In a previous life, he'd been nominated for the Pulitzer and his career in journalism was on the rise until he got caught with a publisher's wife and daughter. The daughter was an adult, he's quick to tell us. In the wake of 9/11, he signed up for Afghanistan and then found himself in Iraq, feeling suckered again. Before he left, he'd fallen for a hometown girl Gabby, but she broke up with him while he was in Iraq. Now she's thinking she needs a restraining order to keep him from driving by her place, and she tells him so in no uncertain terms. Shut out from women and work, he takes up a gig with the hometown paper, where he finds a cold case involving a missing girl that piques his interest. There's a story there, he thinks.

Readers will know there's a story there as well, and be pretty damn happy that Lansdale decided to write it down for them. Lansdale's latest foray into East Texas noir is a sweet piece of pure storytelling, filled with the complexities of life without seeming complex. Clear-cut characters, a brisk pace, nicely choreographed action pieces, and a finely-tuned plot are all unfurled in a voice that's a pleasure to read. Lansdale's storytelling skill enables him to explore the lives of small-town Americans while reflecting on bigger themes in a natural voice. But 'Leather Maiden' is not an assembly of parts. It's a slick, smart book with a story that will keep you reading just for the pleasure of the words.

Taking on the voice of a returned Iraq veteran when the war is ongoing carries with it the potential for disaster. But Lansdale pulls off this tricky piece of characterization by virtue of his prose skills. 'Leather Maiden' is certainly a novel where character and prose are intimately connected. Cason Statler is not exactly a likeable guy when we meet him. He's stalking his girlfriend, and his past doesn't exactly enamor us of him. But Lansdale draws him with lots of self-deprecating humor and a light tone even when he's relating dark deeds. Statler's our conduit for the rest of the cast, so it’s important that Lansdale keeps him weaving and bobbing to the left and right of center. He drinks too much, but he cares too much as well. That kind of back and forth lets Lansdale crisply create those around Cason with an unquestioned veracity; his family, the probably-abused little girl next door, the sharp-tongued old lady who runs the paper, co-workers cute and obnoxious, even Booger, a dangerously unstable fellow-vet who liked his job in the war perhaps a little too much. We know how they are and why they behave the way they do. They come to life, with the aid of Lansdale's peerlessly enjoyable prose.

In some senses, the plot of 'Leather Maiden' requires little rocket science to unravel. It’s a small town and there's a small cast of characters. Most mystery readers can do the math. It’s to Lansdale's credit that he still manages to shock the hell out of readers with twists that seem truly twisted. In fact readers engaged by the easy-going tone of much of the novel may feel they’re getting a lot more than they bargained for, unless they know of Lansdale's reputation as a no-holds-barred horror writer. Once again, it’s Lansdale's storytelling skills that carry the reader from a sense of smiling safety to toe-curling terror. It seems natural while it's happening, but Lansdale doesn't hold back even when Cason and Booger encounter flinch-worthy peril.

'Leather Maiden' sneaks up on readers in a lot of ways. Once you start it, you won’t want to stop even when the going gets grisly. But Lansdale also does an effective job at creating people and a place that readers will want to see again. There is plenty of room for a sequel to this fine novel. It’s clear that Cason Statler has more stories to tell — and so does Joe R. Lansdale.

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