I grew up reading and loving crime fiction (same with films and television shows), from the kids’ series to the stand-alone stories I could buy through the Scholastic Book Fairs. I moved on to Ellery Queen, Charlotte Armstrong, Agatha Christie, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Erle Stanley Gardner as I aged out of the kids’ mysteries, but towards the tail end of the 1970’s, as I approached adulthood the crime stories being published no longer held much interest to me; I still read Holt and Stewart and Whitney other books usually referred to as “romantic suspense”; the stories with the straight white male experience centered were of less and less interest to me. The genre was growing stagnant in my eyes; even the later Whitney and Holt novels didn’t hold as much appeal as their earlier works did.
But the 1980’s ushered in a new era for crime fiction, as women stepped up and reinvigorated the genre, with writers like Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton taking the old tropes long-since grown tired and worn, and breathed fresh life into them by centering women and their point-of-view; hard-boiled tales of tough women who took no shit and were just as strong and intelligent and kick-ass as their male counterparts.
The crime genre is thriving currently; women continue to do extraordinary work in our field, but one of the more exciting developments in their wake is the work that traditionally marginalized voices have been doing. I myself noted towards the end of last year that I needed to diversify my incredibly lily-white reading list, and started added diverse voices into my selections, the new crime fiction, and I am so excited to see writers of color and queer writers breathing new life into our genre. It has been an education, from the brilliance of Steph Cha and Angie Kim, through the authentic and original voices of Kellye Garrett, Walter Mosley, Rachel Howzell Hall, and now, S. A. Cosby.
I handle the bodies.
That’s what I say when people ask me what I do for a living. I find that gets one of two responses. They drift away to the other side of the room and give me a nervous sideways glance the rest of the night or they let out a nervous laugh and move the conversation in another, less macabre direction. I could always say I work in a funeral home, but where’s the fun in that?
Every once in a while, when I was in the Corps, someone would see me at Starbucks or that modern mecca Wal-Mart in my utility uniform. Sometimes they’d catch me in my dress blues after a military ball just trying to grab something before heading back to the base. They would walk up to me and say, “Thank you for your service.” I’d mumble something like “no, thank you for your support” or some other pithy rejoinder, and they would wander away with a nice satisfied look on their faces. Sometimes what I wanted to say was, “I took care of the bodies. The bodies with the legs blown off or the hands shredded. The bodies full of ball bearings and nails and whatever some kid could find to build his IED. I loaded the bodies up and dragged them back to the base, then went out on another patrol and prayed to a God that seemed only to be half-listening that today wasn’t the day that someone had to take care of my body.”
But I don’t think that would have given them the same warm and fuzzy feeling.
My Darkest Prayer is a debut novel for an amazing new voice, one that needs to be heard, and one I am looking forward to reading more from. It’s as hard-boiled as they come; as I read I heard echoes of influence from writers as disparate and diverse as Ross MacDonald and Walter Mosley; our hero Nathan Waymaker is a former Marine who now works–and lives–at a funeral home–he indeed, as he states so clearly in his opening sentence, handles the bodies.
I don’t know if there are many crime novels or crime series where the main character works in a funeral home, but if My Darkest Prayer is an example of the sub-genre, I’m here for it.
Nathan is, as I mentioned, a former Marine, a current funeral home employee, and a resident bad-ass. He’s got some baggage of his own–his parents were killed by a drunk driver, whose father was a bank president, and all the evidence “disappeared”. As the book opens, a local preacher, head of the local New Hope Baptist Temple in a neighboring town, Esau Watkins. Esau used to be a petty crook before finding the “light”–but Nathan is pretty sure it was all a con–and although the death is ruled a suicide, handling the body Nathan is also pretty certain it was murder–and the same crooked sheriff’s department that covered up his parents’ deaths is also covering up the truth about how the good reverend met his end. One of the ladies from the Temple offers Nathan a couple of grand to ask questions and to help figure out how the good reverend came to his end…and soon, we are being led on a fast-paved thrill ride involving orgies, porn stars, megachurches, corrupt cops, and blackmail.
I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and can’t wait to read more of Cosby’s writing. This book is unsentimental and sometimes harsh as it explores issues of faith, spirituality, class and race; and there are so many simple truths stated so baldly and honestly that it’s not only refreshing but a revelation.
“No one ever buries an evil man,” he said.
He was a short tank of a man with broad shoulders and a wide chest.
Nowadays, the refuge was becoming a ghost town. With desegregation came freedom. Freedom gave birth to choices. Now brown and black people could go to the mall, to the beach, to the movies relatively certain they wouldn’t be lynched or beaten. Most of the time.
This is a simply extraordinary debut novel, and as I said, I’m really looking forward to Cosby’s next novel.