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Onyx reviews: Leather Maiden by Joe R. Lansdale

A beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman vanishes. In photographs, she looks smart, charming, and irresistible. Everyone familiar with the case believes she's dead at the hands of someone she knew, because that's how these disappearances usually end, if they're resolved at all. Nothing more may ever be found of her beyond her shoes, car, and the fast food meal she purchased before she went missing.

Cason Statler finds files about Caroline Allison's case on the computer of the columnist he replaces at the Camp Rapture newspaper where he is hired on the rebound. Among the puff pieces he churns out, he writes about Caroline to make sure she isn't forgotten.

As soon as Cason opens the Pandora's Box of Caroline's disappearance, all manner of evils pour out. As he muses in the book's opening pages, "When you grow up in a place…you fail to notice a lot of the nasty things that creep beneath the surface and wriggle about like hungry worms in rotten flesh."

The nasty things happening in Camp Rapture include the flagrant neglect of the feisty young Jazzy who lives next door to Cason's parents and forms a crush on one of the few people to pay attention to her. Cason's brother Jimmy has also been wriggling about like a hungry worm. He's the "successful one," a history professor at the university where Caroline was enrolled. He lives in a nice house, and has a beautiful wife. When a DVD shows up at Cason's office revealing that his brother is less than squeaky clean, his investigation takes a serious turn.

Cason is a Pulitzer Prize nominee who lost his job at a Houston paper when he was caught having affairs with his boss's wife and stepdaughter. That the stepdaughter was thirty at the time makes Cason's philandering only slightly less despicable. He has a ton of issues. He's an Iraq War veteran plagued by obsessive tendencies. When he's under stress, he counts things. He drinks—prodigiously—a fact that is readily apparent to his new boss and his parents.

He also has an unhealthy obsession with his former girlfriend, Gabby, Camp Rapture's veterinarian. Now that he's back in town (staying temporarily in the bedroom he used to share with his brother Jimmy), he drives slowly when he passes her place, rubbernecking, hoping against hope that she'll change her mind about him (or that she at least won't take out a restraining order against him).

Camp Rapture is typical Lansdale territory—small town East Texas, where racial tensions ripple beneath the surface and petty politics run rampant. Even refined people like Cason's new boss, editor Margot Timpson (think Margaret Pynchon from Lou Grant, except much, much older and racist) are rough around the edges.

There is a gem for Cason to unearth, though—his new coworker, Belinda, who is casually dismissed as a receptionist by Timpson. Perhaps as a way of diverting his obsession with Gabby, Cason starts dating Belinda and has her assigned as his assistant. Not long after they become intimate, he takes her into his confidence about everything he has learned about the case, including the sordid details of his brother's actions.

Lansdale has a twisted sense of humor that will make readers laugh out loud. However, he is judicious with his use of humor in Leather Maiden, restricting it to interactions with certain characters to keep from derailing the serious side to the novel. This is no light Hap and Leonard romp.

Lansdale wisely avoids having Carson's OCD factor into the resolution of the mystery. It's simply one of Carson's numerous character tics. He doesn't, however, avoid bringing on the cavalry at the eleventh hour, in the form of one of Cason's old war buddies, a self-proclaimed sociopath named Booger who shows up on Cason's doorstep bearing beer and a small arsenal—all of which come in handy once the people behind a series of heinous crimes put Cason in their crosshairs. Booger is the Hawk to Cason's Spenser, amoral and loyal to anyone who doesn't cross him.

Leather Maiden is intricately plotted, and Lansdale does a fine job of planting seemingly unimportant details in plain sight and having them come together later in unexpected ways. To a certain extent, though, some of the secondary characters get short shrift. For example, readers never see enough of Gabby to understand Cason's obsession with her or the reasons why she has turned against him. Even Belinda serves little more purpose than love interest and a potential pawn in a complex game.

The plot thickens considerably in a scene late in the book when Cason has newspaper morgue denizen Jack Mercury look into news reports that may indicate a larger pattern behind what's been happening in Camp Rapture. Mercury proves to be eminently resourceful, turning up scads of information that add needless levels of complexity to an already complicated scenario.

This one small flaw aside, Leather Maiden is Lansdale at the height of his craft. All the lessons he has learned in his previous books brought him to this point, from his more comedic crime novels to atmospheric books like The Bottoms. A return appearance by Cason and the ironically named city of Camp Rapture would be most welcome.

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