Cason Statler is back from a stint in the Iraq war, returned to Camp
Rapture, a small town in East Texas, humbled in just about every way.
In a previous life, he'd been nominated for the Pulitzer and his career
in journalism was on the rise until he got caught with a publisher's
wife and daughter. The daughter was an adult, he's quick to tell us.
In the wake of 9/11, he signed up for Afghanistan and then found himself
in Iraq, feeling suckered again. Before he left, he'd fallen for a hometown
girl Gabby, but she broke up with him while he was in Iraq. Now she's
thinking she needs a restraining order to keep him from driving by her
place, and she tells him so in no uncertain terms. Shut out from women
and work, he takes up a gig with the hometown paper, where he finds
a cold case involving a missing girl that piques his interest. There's
a story there, he thinks.
Readers will know there's a story there as well, and be pretty damn
happy that Lansdale decided to write it down for them. Lansdale's latest
foray into East Texas noir is a sweet piece of pure storytelling, filled
with the complexities of life without seeming complex. Clear-cut characters,
a brisk pace, nicely choreographed action pieces, and a finely-tuned
plot are all unfurled in a voice that's a pleasure to read. Lansdale's
storytelling skill enables him to explore the lives of small-town Americans
while reflecting on bigger themes in a natural voice. But 'Leather Maiden'
is not an assembly of parts. It's a slick, smart book with a story that
will keep you reading just for the pleasure of the words.
Taking on the voice of a returned Iraq veteran when the war is ongoing
carries with it the potential for disaster. But Lansdale pulls off this
tricky piece of characterization by virtue of his prose skills. 'Leather
Maiden' is certainly a novel where character and prose are intimately
connected. Cason Statler is not exactly a likeable guy when we meet
him. He's stalking his girlfriend, and his past doesn't exactly enamor
us of him. But Lansdale draws him with lots of self-deprecating humor
and a light tone even when he's relating dark deeds. Statler's our conduit
for the rest of the cast, so it’s important that Lansdale keeps
him weaving and bobbing to the left and right of center. He drinks too
much, but he cares too much as well. That kind of back and forth lets
Lansdale crisply create those around Cason with an unquestioned veracity;
his family, the probably-abused little girl next door, the sharp-tongued
old lady who runs the paper, co-workers cute and obnoxious, even Booger,
a dangerously unstable fellow-vet who liked his job in the war perhaps
a little too much. We know how they are and why they behave the way
they do. They come to life, with the aid of Lansdale's peerlessly enjoyable
In some senses, the plot of 'Leather Maiden' requires little rocket
science to unravel. It’s a small town and there's a small cast
of characters. Most mystery readers can do the math. It’s to Lansdale's
credit that he still manages to shock the hell out of readers with twists
that seem truly twisted. In fact readers engaged by the easy-going tone
of much of the novel may feel they’re getting a lot more than
they bargained for, unless they know of Lansdale's reputation as a no-holds-barred
horror writer. Once again, it’s Lansdale's storytelling skills
that carry the reader from a sense of smiling safety to toe-curling
terror. It seems natural while it's happening, but Lansdale doesn't
hold back even when Cason and Booger encounter flinch-worthy peril.
'Leather Maiden' sneaks up on readers in a lot of ways. Once you start
it, you won’t want to stop even when the going gets grisly. But
Lansdale also does an effective job at creating people and a place that
readers will want to see again. There is plenty of room for a sequel
to this fine novel. It’s clear that Cason Statler has more stories
to tell – and so does Joe R. Lansdale.