If you think crime and violence are big-city problems, Eli Cranor will set you straight. His new novel, “Ozark Dogs,” set in a small town in Arkansas, is as dark and bloody as a bullet wound.
Cranor’s first book, “Don’t Know Tough,” won critical praise and glowing blurbs and is a finalist for the 2023 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best first novel by an American author. (The winner will be announced April 27.)
“Ozark Dogs” shows no sign of sophomore slump. It’s a relentless grit-noir thriller of family secrets, betrayals and the toxic marriage of addiction and violence.
Its main character, Jeremiah Fitzjurls, is a Vietnam veteran with a Bronze Star and 18 years of sobriety, despite a roaring case of post-traumatic stress disorder and crushing personal losses.
The only bright spot in Jeremiah’s life — and the reason he’s stayed sober — is his granddaughter, Jo, whom he raised by himself. As the novel begins, he’s struggling to deal with the fact that she’s nearing high school graduation and eager to start life on her own.
Jeremiah has been way more protective than the average grandpa. He owns a junkyard, acres of the crushed and rusting corpses of cars, often surveying it from atop a tower of wrecks he calls Babel. A pack of dogs roams the yard at night. Jeremiah only feeds them once a week, because he believes hunger keeps them vicious.
He and Jo live in the junkyard, in a windowless bunker with thick concrete walls and a vault that contains an arsenal, “enough guns to start a war, or end one.” Jeremiah has maintained his military sniper skills and taught Jo how to shoot as well.
He’d like to keep her safe there forever, but she’s a good student and star basketball player, and colleges are calling. Despite his standing guard over her, Jo is popular enough that there’s a rumor she’ll be named homecoming queen, so he accompanies her to the game.
There he finds out there’s a threat he didn’t know about: Jo’s boyfriend, Colt Dillard, the team’s quarterback. In a region where football vies with evangelical religion for dominance, and they sometimes get mixed together, Colt is a big deal.
Jeremiah knows how that works. His only son and Jo’s father, Jake, was once the team’s quarterback, and the same kind of handsome, confident kid Colt is now. Jake is now serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison, for something that happened at the junkyard that will only gradually be revealed.
The upshot of that incident was the death of Rudnick Ledford, yet another former quarterback, and the Ledford family still burns for more vengeance, which is why Jeremiah moved into the bunker.
Before Rudnick died, the family business was selling meth and leading the local chapter of the Klan, who are among their best customers. After the greenhouse where they cooked meth caught fire, leaving Rudnick’s father, Bunn, terribly scarred, Bunn turned to the Lord, becoming a hellfire preacher (and incorporating Klan beliefs with biblical ones).
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Rudnick’s younger brother, Evail, had no come-to-Jesus moment. He used a stint in prison for drug dealing to hone his criminal skills by ingratiating himself with Mexican gang members. Now Evail is ready to set a scheme in motion that he believes will make him richer than just dealing drugs: trafficking teenage girls to the gang.
So when Jo and Colt sneak off after the homecoming game to lose their virginity together, and Colt reports her missing in the middle of the night, Jeremiah assumes the Ledfords are behind it.
He’s ready to go to battle with them single handed, but the local sheriff, Mona McNabb, who’s known him all her life, makes him promise to give her 24 hours to find Jo. Jeremiah grudgingly agrees and uses the time to fall totally off the wagon, setting up his whiskey-fueled pursuit. Meanwhile, as she tries to escape, the resourceful Jo faces painful truths about people she loves, and herself.
Cranor uses multiple third-person points of view to create and crank up tension and to gradually expose the identity of Jo’s mother and the fate of Jeremiah’s wife, Hattie. A chain of bad decisions born of vengeance, addiction and long-hidden betrayals leads “Ozark Dogs” to a savage but satisfying finale.
By Eli Cranor
Soho Crime, 312 pages, $26.95
Meet the author
Eli Cranor will be in conversation about “Ozark Dogs” with bestselling thriller writer Lisa Unger at 7 p.m. May 5 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.