f you’ve never entered the twisted world of novelist Joe R. Lansdale, ”Leather Maiden” is as good a point as any to strap it on.
The tremendously prolific writer from Nacogdoches, Texas, is fluent in any number of genres, including horror, Western and sci-fi. But his moldy bread and rancid butter is the over-the-top pulp noir mystery.
He calls what he does ”mojo storytelling.”
A literary grandson of grizzled ’40s writer Jim Thompson (”The Grifters”), or, for a more contemporary touchstone, a cousin of film director David Lynch in full ”Blue Velvet” mode, the Edgar Award-winning Lansdale writes as if he’s just slit his wrists and wants to get the story out before he loses too much blood.
Cason Statler, a damaged Iraq War veteran who once had a promising journalism career in Houston -- he was nominated for the Pulitzer -- returns home to the small East Texas town of Camp Rapture with his tail between his legs.
He has an interview for a columnist job at the Camp Rapture Report, edited by a salty woman named Margot Timpson.
Here’s Cason’s first impression of her: ”Her face was eroded with deep canals over which a cheap powder had been caked, like sand over the Sphinx. Her breasts rested comfortably in her lap; they seemed to have recently died and she just hadn’t taken time to dispose of them.”
Bored with the usual small-town column fodder, Cason begins probing the disappearance of a promising college student, a girl whom he quickly learns was much more complex than her blindingly bright smile. Her body hasn’t been found.
What ensues is sort of like a ride on one of Lansdale’s Western titles: ”Razored Saddles.”
There’s murder of course, but not just your run-of-the-mill dismemberments. The title refers to the epidermal husks of women the killers leave behind.
Tastelessness, including various extreme forms of sadism, kinky sex, pornography, blackmail, child abuse, and a general disrespect for just about anything and everything, abounds. It’s tempered by Lansdale’s black-hole humor.
Hardboiled metaphors (”felt as if my hair was going to detach from my head and weave itself into a potholder”) and out-of-nowhere characters (screw-loose war buddy Booger, who owns a bar/shooting range in Hootie Hoot, Okla.) are a matter of course.
Cason comes to realize that ”my small corner of the world was ruled by something dark with tentacles that reached into all parts of my life; some monster behind the veil of reason.”
It is all way beyond the boundaries, of course. Is Lansdale winking at us? I sure hope so.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES