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What On Infinite Earths is: Southern Bastards

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on May 15, 2017

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Crime fiction can be a little hit or miss. For every gripping mystery there are just as many shallow and meaningless repetitions of police procedure and forensic evidence that the authors picked up from watching Law and Order too many times. 

Compared to the other books and comics that I read, I find that a lot of crime fiction feels shallow without any world-building or significance. The characters seem to be similarly puddle-deep. Policemen going through the motions of doing the right thing just because it is their job. There are also a lot of weird implications in crime fiction that have never panned out quite the same in real life, like the idea that everyone on the police force is, in their natural state, a good person willing to do whatever it takes to protect others. On the few occasions where corruption is portrayed, it is in the form of someone truly villainous, and it takes centre stage so that the “few bad apples” can be trotted out and publicly flogged in our fiction.

Southern Bastards runs contrary to all of that.

The American South is a strange place in fiction, an almost mythical place where larger than life heroes can clash with larger than life villains. In a gritty crime story, the lines between those two are often blurred and exaggerated traits can swing from one side of the moral spectrum to the other depending upon your perspective but the sense of colossal forces at work persists, regardless. There is an obvious darkness just under the surface of the American South and this book brings it up to the surface with casual ease, ascribing significance and horror to both minor everyday events like the memorable first page of a dog taking a shit, and the more unlikely ones like lightning striking a tree.

There is a sense of justice to Southern Bastards, both of the sort that a travelling lawman might bring to a cowboy story and the more poetic kind that comes with the gradual layering of history. In the small town of Craw County, it is impossible to move a few feet before tripping over someone who you know, and who knows all of your family’s dirty little secrets in turn. Everyone knows the dark secret that most crime stories strive so hard to bury and the fact that they are complicit through that knowledge, or deliberately avoiding the truth, is what takes this story from a run of the mill heroic tale to the depths of crime noir.

The twist that comes at the end of the first book sets the tone for the remainder of the series. The creators are not afraid to take their story, with all of the weight of an expected narrative behind it and derail the train that you are riding on. There is a sense of doom throughout the book, an idea that fate is intervening to see that the guilty suffer, but it is only after that first revelation that you realise that the crushing inevitability of violence and destruction that you have been waiting for is the weight behind the narrative. You know from the first page that death and vengeance is coming to Craw County, but it is only after the first arc comes to a close that you realise just how much of a debt of blood is still due.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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