After two books it is hard to say with certainty that American crime author SA Cosby has a “type” but there are certainly similarities between his scorching debut Blacktop Wasteland and the characters and concerns of his second novel Razorblade Tears. If nothing else, it is the idea that you can never walk away from a life of crime. Like a drug addiction, the craving stays in your system just waiting for an excuse to re-emerge.
Ike Randolph is years out from being released from prison. He has a successful gardening business that mainly hires ex-cons to give them a second chance and has sworn off the gang life that put him behind bars for seven years. But the death of his son Isaiah in what is clearly a professional shooting pulls him back into that life. But it is more than that. Isaiah was killed alongside his husband Derek and neither Ike, nor Derek’s father Buddy-Lee, were ever able to accept that their sons’ sexuality or decisions. Both a forced to reassess their relationships with their children and find themselves coming up short, realising too late that their sexuality did not define them and should not have impacted so heavily on their relationship. Driven by that guilt the two aging, ex-con fathers, come together to find out who killed their sons.
The plot of Razorblade Tears spins out from this premise, dropping Ike and Buddy Lee quickly back into the kind of violent life they thought they had left behind. Before long they are searching for a missing girl, in the crosshairs of a biker gang and calling on old favours from even bigger criminals. As with Blacktop Wasteland, Cosby slowly builds the pressure, splitting the point of view chapters so that the reader has a good understanding of how the best laid plans always go astray and what Ike and Buddy-Lee will have to deal with.
Razorblade Tears is more than just an action piece. Ike and Buddy Lee’s rocky relationship with their gay children and the prejudices faced more broadly by the LGBT community are explored, as is the difference in treatment between Ike, a black ex-con, and Buddy-Lee who is white. While both fall back on old modes of behaviour they are also aware that they need to change. One of Cosby’s main themes is summed up in this conversation between Buddy Lee and Ike:
“So you think I’m a racist,” Buddy Lee said.
“I think maybe for the first time in your life you’re seeing what the world looks like for people that don’t look like you. But then, so am I. We both learning. We both done said and did shit that we wish we could take back. I think if you figure out at one point in your life you was a terrible person, you can start getting better. Start treating people better.”
In Razorblade Tears Cosby has delivered page turning, fairly violent crime fiction with a lot of heart. Cosby has some points to make and observations of society but he does not ram those down the readers’ throats. Rather he lets them emerge organically through his well drawn, flawed characters and story. Where Blacktop Wasteland introduced Cosby as an American crime writer to watch, Razorblade Tears confirms him as one of the best.