Provocative Southern Noir Thriller All The Sinners Bleed Is S.A. Crosby’s Best Yet

Books Reviews S.A. Crosby
Provocative Southern Noir Thriller All The Sinners Bleed Is S.A. Crosby’s Best Yet

Although most of us likely think of black-and-white movies and the gritty streets of big cities like Chicago or New York when we hear about “noir” mysteries, plenty of modern authors are working overtime to change our perceptions of what those sorts of stories should be and do. In fact, the sub-genre of what’s colloquially been termed “Southern noir” sets its crime stories in an almost diametrically opposed setting: The swamps, mountains, and rural towns of the American South. In these places, traditional detective stories meet everything from backwoods feuds and moonshine mafias, to the carefully crafted suburbs that put a shiny, successful gloss on darker, deeper ideological struggles. 

Fans of true crime novels and dark thrillers alike will thrill to bestselling author S.A. Crosby’s latest foray into the genre, All the Sinners Bleed, a novel that, while it depicts a fictional series of murders, has plenty to say about both the difficult truths of life in a rural Southern town and the uncomfortable real-life issues that still plague a part of the country that’s still (sometimes violently) reckoning with its own racial history. 

Set in the ominously named Charon County, All the Sinners Bleed follows the story of Sheriff Titus Crown, the first Black \man ever elected to the role in this rural Virginia community. The inherent conflict in his role alone would likely be enough to power an entire novel, as Crosby digs into the careful, frustrating ways Titus must navigate the many competing priorities and power struggles of his role. Unlike his previous works—Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears—which focused on characters working outside the law, this tale will appeal to those who enjoy a good old-fashioned procedural-style cop drama. 

When a tragic school shooting terrorizes the community and leaves a popular teacher and a troubled local man dead, Charon is rocked that such evil could possibly exist in their picturesque Southern town. But that’s barely the beginning: It turns out that both the shooter and his lone victim are connected to a series of horrific murders targeting local Black children, kids that had all disappeared over the past two years. Nightmarish recovered video—which thankfully Crosby never feels the need to describe the horrific torture and mutilation his prose implies—reveals the involvement of a third party, a mysterious killer in a wolf mask who still remains at large. 

As Titus and his deputies work to figure out the identity of the so-called “Last Wolf”, the investigation expands to include the openly racist pastor of a strange church sect that practices snake handling, the scion of one of the county’s most powerful families, a local drug dealer and more. (This is a story where everyone’s a suspect, and while most folks don’t turn out to be psychotic killers, almost everyone in Charon is keeping more than their fair share of secrets.)

Carefully mixing high-tension twists, a compelling mystery, and timely social commentary on the South’s continuing struggle to reckon with the racism and discrimination in its past, All the Sinners Bleed is a thriller of surprising depth. Truthfully, Titus’s story alone would be enough to make for a compelling novel, as he returns to his hometown after leaving the FBI following a violent encounter with white nationalists that culminated in a bloody Waco-esque standoff. His dedication to fixing a broken system from within feels deeply admirable and almost painfully naive by turns, as he struggles to bring justice to a community where at least half its residents openly view him as less than them and his authority as illegitimate. 

Crosby particularly excels at the details of small-town Southern life, from the fire and brimstone of its wide variety of religious leaders to the unspoken desperation of its working-class residents who turn to drugs and other illicit activities to make ends meet. Everyone knows everyone else and family histories, tragedies, and grudges go back for literal generations. Gay people are still forced to remain closeted and an illegitimate mixed-race child is a family’s most shameful secret. Crosby’s strong grasp of the intricacies of these relationships and attitudes makes the world of Charon feel lived-in and three-dimensional, which gives the ever-increasing fear of the townspeople as the bodies pile up more weight. 

Plenty of potential culprits and clues are offered up over the course of the novel’s briskly-paced narrative. Though it’s unlikely you’ll figure out all of the answers to the case before Titus does, the revelation of the murderer weaves several of the novel’s key themes together, giving everything an uncomfortable gloss of awful certainty, as though a community that was capable of such quiet, seething hatred was always destined to produce a monster. But despite the novel’s many cynical edges—you may find yourself rolling your eyes at more than one of the good sheriff’s bleak pronouncements about how irredeemably broken both the world and the entire concept of organized religion are—the story ends on a surprisingly perfect note of defiant hope. 

All the Sinners Bleed is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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