“This is who I am. I can’t change. I don’t want to, really. But for once I’m gonna put this devil inside me to good use.”
A killer premise is always a good start. Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee are plenty different. Ike is black; Buddy Lee is white. Ike built a business from the ground up and employs crews of workers; Buddy Lee’s work history is checkered at best. Ike is a comfortable business and home owner; Buddy Lee lives in a dilapidated single-wide trailer with a window unit that pushes around lukewarm air. Ike is happily married; Buddy Lee hasn’t been in a serious relationship since his son’s mom left him. But they have a few things in common too. Both did time in prison. Both have ample capacity to deal out violence. Neither could accept their son’s homosexuality. Their sons who were married to each other. Who were just murdered.
To paraphrase Solomon Kane, men will die for that.
Ike isn’t quick to go back to that old life, to be Riot Randolph again. He has a lot to lose now—a home, a business, a wife, a granddaughter. He knows the danger of going back to that dark place is more than physical. Buddy Lee feels different, though, and Buddy Lee talks him into it. Ike and Buddy Lee have more than skin color and the rest of the stuff I mentioned above that makes him different. Ike is all about bottling up his ungovernable rage. Buddy Lee is happy-go-lucky with a quip for everything and lets his rage fly freely. Both men have plenty of rage to spread around with the blood.
The contrast really works. I can see plenty of myself in both characters, and the characters play off of each other. The conflict of personality between the two helps drive the narrative, along with the conflict conflict and their conflicting emotions toward their sons. They loved their sons but couldn’t accept them. They realize the error of their ways now, but it is too late and men do not change their worldview overnight.
Ike and Buddy Lee set about getting to the bottom of why their sons got killed in what looks like a less-than-random way. Which isn’t to say this is a mystery. Ike and Buddy Lee are killers, not investigators. They lack the skills to find the killers, but start knocking heads around and the killers are liable to come find you. They can handle themselves just fine from there.
One reason I love country noir is how comfortably it sits in the overlap between literary and pulp, often showcasing the best of both worlds. Razorblade Tears is killer from either perspective. The subject matter is heavy and handled with gravity. The character arcs are rich. The prose is elegant and deep. The action comes early and often. The violence is visceral. The revenge is sweet. The pacing is propulsive. Don’t get fooled into thinking people are praising this book because it’s trendy—it’s the real deal, and for all the depth it works completely from a pulp perspective (maybe more so than just about any other country noir novel I’ve reviewed here).
5 of 5 Stars.