In Steph Post's new novel, Walk in the Fire, there's a young aspiring criminal with a gift for astute observation.
Asked to describe the tiny Central Florida town of Silas, where much of the book takes place, he says, "You drive through and it's like that zombie show. Except that everybody is the hick who sawed off his own hand to get away."
Walk in the Fire is the sequel to Post's 2017 book Lightwood, which featured a couple of main characters who, by its last chapter, might have considered using that saw. In that novel, Judah Cannon came back to Silas after a prison term, determined to step out of his family's business — crime — and leave town with his long-lost love, Ramey Barrow.
Not a chance. Judah's violent father, Sherwood, wouldn't let go, and Lightwood ended in a three-way battle among the Cannons, a motorcycle gang called the Scorpions and, most fearsome of all, a ruthless fundamentalist preacher named Sister Tulah.
Judah and Ramey were still standing, but his father was dead, one of his brothers was missing and the other, sweet-natured Benji, grievously injured in body and mind.
Post, who lives in St. Petersburg and has been a writing coach at Blake High School in Tampa, picks up the story in Walk in the Fire not long after that confrontation, which also cost Tulah an eye and left her church badly damaged by fire.
Tulah doesn't miss a beat, donning an eye patch and holding services in the smoldering ruins. But Judah and Ramey find walking away isn't easy. As Walk in the Fire opens, Ramey is lying on the sun-scorched hood of a silver Cadillac, looking up "at the impossible cobalt of the sky, deep and cool, far away from the pillars of crushed cars radiating heat all around her. ..."
The couple is operating the auto salvage yard that was Sherwood's legitimate business, but Judah is also still involved in his father's gambling ring and managing a crew of backwoods bagmen.
He might not want to be a crime boss, but other people want the enterprise to continue. Judah's other major motivation for sticking around is his guilt over the fate of Benji, who was dragged behind a motorcycle and thrown into a ditch. Terribly scarred and tottering on crutches, Benji lives with Judah and Ramey and spends his days in an opioid haze watching TV and spitting bitter commentary.
Ramey is none too happy, either. As she points out to Judah, "(M)ost folks don't go to the Winn-Dixie armed to the teeth, watching their backs in the cereal aisle." She loves him but grows ever angrier at his reluctance to leave and the fact that they always seem to be short of having enough money to do so. Silas is the kind of town where even crime doesn't pay.
In the meantime, Tulah is putting her iron-fisted rule of the town back in order and preparing for a mysterious ceremony called the Recompense by, among other things, concocting an antidote for poison.
Then there's her dim-witted nephew and henchman, Brother Felton, who has been changed by the events around the church fire. The once-cowed Felton has gained so much confidence he moved out of Tulah's fancy but creepy house and into an RV. He parks it right next to his other RV, which houses his reptile collection — and where sometimes his snakes talk to him, telling him to rise up and find his own voice.
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Add to that interesting mix a federal agent from Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco. Clive Grant has been riding a desk in Atlanta after blowing a promising start to his career. He has been sent to Silas to investigate the church fire and determine whether it might have been a hate crime.
Clive is not having much fun in a town where people keep "staring at him like they'd never seen a black man in an Armani suit before." He could just write a cursory report and head back to his sleek apartment in Atlanta. But something about the case piques his interest, and he starts asking questions.
When Felton tells him Sherwood had no problems with Sister Tulah, Clive notes, "I mean, he did put out her eye. With his thumb. That's not the sort of thing you do to somebody you like, is it?" It soon becomes clear Clive is not a screwup but a talented investigator — albeit one who adds to Ramey's and Judah's discomfort.
Much worse is to come, though, in this gritty Florida noir novel. Post has a real knack for creating a complex plot that maintains its drive through sweat-slicked settings that range from raucous Daytona Beach strip clubs to the kind of lonesome roads where nothing good happens.
She's also adept at making us care about characters who in other fictional settings might be the bad guys. When Ramey says unhappily, "I just held a gun on a man while he ate a Power Bar. Tied up. In my garden shed," we feel for her.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.