Written by Joe R Lansdale — Hot in December is the latest thriller from one of genre fiction’s most prolific and respected writers. Over a career spanning more than 30 years, Lansdale has written over 40 novels as well as 28 short story collections, usually in horror or crime fiction. He has edited anthologies and wrote the young adult novel All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky. Recently, his crime fiction output has alternated between stand-alone novels, such as this year’s The Thicket, and new releases in his Hap Collins and Leonard Pine series. The series features a gay black man with a no-nonsense attitude and a white pacifist. They’re highly recommended.
Hot in December, Lansdale’s new novella, is a different fish. It begins with Tom Chen making use of a pre-Christmas heat wave to enjoy a barbecue with his wife Kelly and daughter Sue. Tom owns a frame shop now, but was in the US Army in Afghanistan. He witnesses a hit-and-run which leaves his neighbour dead. Incensed, he does the decent thing and goes to the police to try to identify the driver.
After looking at mug shots, Tom identifies Will Anthony, the out of control son of the local Dixie Mafia boss Pye Anthony, as the murderer. However, the reaction of the police is puzzling. Rather than being enthusiastic about the chance to bring down a dangerous criminal, they advise Tom that he might be better off forgetting the whole thing because the Anthonys have a way of making witnesses disappear, and whilst they can offer protection during a trial, before and after he is on his own.
That night Tom and his wife are abducted and taken to a disused mine where they are stripped and humiliated, before Pye Anthony gives them a final warning that testifying will mean death for them and all their family. Tom is as much angry as scared, and contacts his old army buddy Cason Statler for advice. Cason is now an investigative reporter and has some experience of being threatened by criminals. He suggests bringing another army acquaintance – the terrifying Booger. This man owns a gunshop, and is a licensed bodyguard and also a hitman for hire. Before they can really decide what to do, they are ambushed at home by the police dispatcher. It seems as if the mafia have reached into the police department and the group are really on their own. They decide to fight back. Indeed, Booger is particularly eager to do some killing, and the book reaches a bloody climax back at the disused mine.
I breezed through this novella in one sitting – the story never stalls and the action keeps on coming. There is plenty of Lansdale’s trademark, off-beat humour and the violence is visceral and explosive. It does lack the richness and depth of Lansdale’s best work, perhaps because it’s a novella. The book is closest to his Collins and Pine stories but lacks the sense of friendship and comradeship of those books. Long-time Lansdale readers will appreciate the nods to previous books including Devil Red, and Sunset and Sawdust, whilst those new to him can begin what should be a long and fruitful relationship with one of the best crime fiction writers working today.
Dark Regions Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
Deluxe illustrated editions are available here.