S.A. Cosby doesn’t waste any time.
His new novel, “All the Sinners Bleed,” does begin with a quiet moment as Titus Crown, sheriff of Charon County, Virginia, sips coffee and trades banter with his dad, Albert.
Then his radio lights up: an active shooter at the high school. Titus is out the door before Albert can finish saying, “What’s going on?”
Before long, Latrell Macdonald, a young man who graduated from the school, will be dead, shot by two of Titus’ deputies. Inside the school, they find Latrell’s single victim: Jeff Spearman, one of the school’s most popular teachers.
In the last 15 years, rural Charon County has only had two murder victims. It’s about to have a lot more.
This is the fourth novel from Cosby, a native of southeastern Virginia. He has said that his first one, “My Darkest Prayer,” was turned down 200 times before he found an agent and published it in 2019. That’s 200 agents who are kicking themselves. Cosby’s bestselling second novel, 2020′s “Blacktop Wasteland,” made him a superstar of Southern noir crime fiction, and his third, “Razorblade Tears,” in 2021, sealed the deal.
“All the Sinners Bleed” continues the roll with the same kind of compelling characters, dark plot twists, mordant humor and ruthless violence. It also continues Cosby’s unflinching confrontation with racism, the root of so much American violence.
Titus, a Black man, grew up steeped in the generational racism of Charon County. He got out with football and academic scholarships, then became an FBI agent in Indiana. That promising career ended when he barely survived a raid on a white supremacist compound whose leader had so brainwashed his family that all of them met the FBI wearing grenade vests, even the youngest son, “only seven years old. His vest had hung loose on his shoulders like a hoodie he’d borrowed from one of his brothers. When he’d pulled that pin his face had been as blank as a sheet of notebook paper.”
Titus credits his homecoming to his father’s need for care after surgery, but his own scars, physical and emotional, from the raid come back to Charon County with him. It’s almost accidental that he ended up being the county’s first Black sheriff after the former holder of the office, Ward Bennings, a corrupt good old boy known for harassing Black residents, got run over by a logging truck.
Now, a year later, Titus is walking tightropes all over the place. A young, progressive Black preacher, Jamal Addison, is leading a local church. Albert dismisses him — “He thinks Jesus wears blue jeans” — but Titus is aware he’s becoming a community leader. Jamal’s opposite number is Ricky Sours, who leads the local Sons of the Confederacy. The town has a statue of a generic Confederate soldier that no one is trying to tear down, but the Sons will be marching to support it in the upcoming Fall Fest. Titus thinks of them as “cosplaying rebels,” their parade “a grievance in search of a reason.”
Tensions between the two groups, and throughout the county, rise after the school shooting: Latrell was Black, Spearman was white. But when Titus goes to the morgue and opens a locked cell phone with a dead man’s thumb, the case turns into something else entirely, something almost unbearably shocking and terrible.
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Titus is chasing a serial killer, one who has already buried multiple victims and who is not done yet. The killer seems to know Charon County as well as Titus does, to be connected somehow to its people and history, but can the sheriff solve the bloody puzzle of his identity before he strikes again? “Your flock is not safe,” he warns Titus.
Amid that desperate chase, Titus is also dealing with rumors that someone in his department is in the pay of drug dealers and staving off the intrusions of Scott Cunningham, city official and scion of a local wealthy white family, who fancies (incorrectly) that he’s Titus’ boss.
Titus is trying to give time to his relationship with Darlene, with whom he may be in love, while trying to forget about Kellie, whom he left behind in Indiana. That gets much more complicated when Kellie, a true crime podcaster, shows up in town to interview him.
And Titus, his brother, Marquis, and their father still grapple with their grief over the death of Albert’s wife, which splintered the family years ago.
The pursuit of the killer accelerates as more victims fall, in increasingly gruesome fashion. Cosby doesn’t flinch at depicting the reality of violence or its endless echo. He’s a master of building a sense of creeping dread that explodes into hair-raising action.
He’s also deft at bringing complex characters to life, and at pointed humor, as when the sheriff questions a fearsome snake-handling preacher who waves a serpent at him and Titus notes that “since it’s a king snake, not a coral snake, a bite from him won’t mean much.”
But there is plenty of poison in Charon County, and Titus, too, will feel its bite in this riveting ride of a book.
All the Sinners Bleed
By S.A. Cosby
Flatiron Books, 338 pages, $27.99