When a story opens with a murder in the middle of a hurricane, itís hard to build expectations even higher. How much more exciting can a story get? In Joe Lansdaleís addicting Sunset and Sawdust, the red-haired beauty Sunset finds life becoming much more exciting, if considerably less windblown. Her simple, immediate decision to shoot her husband leads to an unexpected position as town constable, two very interested men, and an awkward and increasingly personal mystery left over from the last constable.
Itís a tight crime story, filled with seduction and tantalizing leads, but not uncommon. What elevates Sunset and Sawdust from good to great is the language. Lansdale has the rare gift of turning written English into a tactile experience. Lurid sunsets, red-clay glue and the mad click of June bugs permeate every moment of the story. Lansdaleís East Texas feels more true than the actual physical locale, and is imbued with a magic that gives even the believable, prosaic details of Sunsetís tale an air of mystery. His landscapes evolve a vibrant personality, with passages that capture the mindís eye and lead to the sort of transfixed attention usually reserved for more visual mediums. His characters, all endowed with that slight exaggeration natural to tall tales and folklore, still feel as genuine as any you might meet at the local bar. Thereís none of the postmodern cynicism common to mystery novels. Except for a few painfully amoral characters, the people of Camp Rapture are earnest to the point of self-destruction. In the space of a few lines, Lansdale can create a strikingly, or punchably, real person. Sunset and her allies are likeable in the flawed, human way of real friends. They soar or err in accordance with their personalities, and their mistakes have the unavoidable force of a Greek tragedy without the convenient gods to blame.
The central mystery, concerning the oil-smothered body of a white woman and her dead baby, is often overtaken by the frantic drama of Sunsetís fledgling attempts at law. Like all dramas, Sunsetís tale calls for sacrifice ó but the nature of those sacrifices is carefully hidden from the reader. The solution to the mystery is rather more self-evident, but the frantic adventures of Sunset and her allies as they try to solve it provide a powerful diversion from that central concern. A mystery is always more easily solved with a certain emotional distance, and Sunsetís increasing distraction and eventual desperation make that distance impossible to maintain. Itís far more tempting to get caught up in a street brawl, or spend some time roaming the muddy roads along the contested farmland of Camp Rapture.
Sunset and Sawdust is more than another mystery tale. Itís a tangible escape into another world, a time of dust and desperation lost in the maps of the past. More fantastic than a fairy tale and as real as a memory, Sunset and Sawdust is a book to be devoured or savored, but always relished.