If the Florida town of Silas actually existed, you'd want to stay the hell away from it.
Lucky for us, the setting for Steph Post's gritty, propulsive crime novel Lightwood is fictional, although many of us have run across towns like it. Post, who lives in St. Petersburg and is the writing coach at Blake High School in Tampa, makes effective use of her backwoods Florida setting — a side of the state the tourist brochures don't feature — for this Southern-fried noir story, her second book.
The closest Post comes to pinpointing Silas is noting that it's a 20-mile walk from the Florida State Prison in Starke, in the north central part of the state. Judah Cannon, the book's main character, takes that walk in the first chapter, returning home after a three-year stint in prison — his first, and in his family a person's first prison stint isn't expected to be his last.
There's no one there to meet him when he walks out of prison, and Judah leaves Starke determined to make a new start, having received a Dear John letter from his girlfriend and mother of his (maybe) daughter. He has been raised to believe family is more important than anything else, but he's tired of being under the crusty thumb of his father, Sherwood, a violent small-time criminal, and his brother Levi, a chip off the mean old block.
Judah's resolve doesn't last much longer than his first welcome-home beer. Sherwood has a plan to make some easy money, and Judah doesn't get to opt out.
The plan involves the roadside robbery of a trio of bikers, members of a local gang called the Scorpions. Normally they make a quiet living cooking meth, but they've taken a side job as cocaine couriers. Traveling with saddlebags stuffed with cash, they're a target for the Cannons — although how Sherwood knows about their scheme and its timing is an interesting question.
The robbery goes smoothly (well, for the Cannons), but the aftermath doesn't. It seems the Scorpions' drug deal was financed by the formidable Sister Tulah, a sadistic preacher whose methods for persuading her flock to accept Jesus include locking them inside the Last Steps of Deliverance Church of God on a sweltering Florida day — with no air conditioning — until they start passing out. And when she does unlock the doors, she expects every last one of them to thank her on the way out. That includes her nephew Felton, who is perhaps even more eager to escape her malign influence than Judah is to get away from Sherwood.
Sister Tulah, who preaches a couple of hair-curling sermons in the book, is not used to being crossed, and she's so intimidating even the bikers do her bidding. Judah's younger brother Benji, the only member of the Cannon family blessed with charm and a sweet nature, didn't take part in the robbery and "doesn't even know how to have enemies." But he takes the terrible brunt of Tulah's wrath, and Judah knows the rest of the family will be next unless the preacher gets her due.
Complicating matters for Judah is his reunion with his childhood friend and first love, Ramey. She has her own dark secrets, but she's tough and devoted to Judah — and to getting out of Silas.
Lightwood (its title an old-fashioned term for the resinous heart of pine used to start fires) keeps up a headlong pace as the Cannons, the Scorpions, Sister Tulah and other forces clash brutally all around Judah and Ramey. You might not want to visit Silas in real life, but it makes a fine setting for this twisted and compelling tale.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected]com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.