Cold in July by Joe Lansdale is a novel from the 1980s with a synopsis that makes you think it’s about revenge. It’s totally not. In fact, the actual plot is so very different from the synopsis, I’m going to include lots of spoilers.
10 out of 10 stars. It’s not often that thrillers are unpredictable, but this one certainly is. Although I’m not fond of first person narratives, I was able to get over that pretty quickly. The author’s writing is easy to read although he puts in a lot of description I don’t care for. The plot’s what kept me reading.
Richard and Ann Dane are young parents in a southern town somewhere in Alabama. One evening Ann hears someone downstairs and wakes Richard from a sound sleep. He’s shaking as he loads the pistol he keeps in the nightstand, then he goes downstairs to the living room and finds a burglar staring at their cheap painting on the wall. He turns and shines his flashlight in Richard’s eyes, momentarily blinding Richard, then he reaches for his gun and shoots at Richard. Richard can feel the bullet enter the wall right behind him, so the guy only narrowly missed him. Richard fires back and kills the burglar. He calls 9-1-1 and expects to be arrested. He isn’t.
Sheriff Ray Price makes a report and takes down his testimony and Ann’s. He tells Richard the man’s name was Freddy Russell and he was a piece of shit. Apparently he had a record. The case is immediately declared self defense and Freddy is buried in a county plot. Richard sits in his car and watches the burglar buried by the county and a man appears in his window, Freddy’s father just released from Huntsville Prison, Ben Russell. To say Ben is angry that his son has just been killed is an understatement. He threatens Richard’s four year old son Jordan and the police do nothing.
That evening someone breaks into their home and leaves bullets all over their son’s bed and floor. Now the cops station men outside their house. The following evening someone breaks into their home, knocks out the deputy stationed there, and goes into Jordan’s room. Richard hears a noise and goes immediately to Jordan’s room, chasing the man out the window. Everyone assumes it was Ben.
Days later, Sheriff Price tells Richard that the Mexican Federales caught Ben crossing the border and he’s been arrested and returned to prison for parole violation. Richard and Ann finally relax.
Coincidentally Richard goes to the police station to talk to Sheriff Price and sees a wanted poster for Freddy Russell. This is not the man he killed in his home. He tells the Sheriff this but the Sheriff insists its in his head and refuses to discuss it further. So Richard, ever persistent, sits outside the police station waiting for Sheriff Price to get off work so he can nag him some more. Only Sheriff Price and his deputies tear out of the parking lot heading someplace else, to a ratting old apartment building where they miraculously drag out Ben Russell, who is obviously not in Mexico after all. The cops take him to the edge of town, beat him up and inject him with something that knocks him out. They lay him on the railroad tracks and pour whiskey over him, making it appear he’s drunk and passed out instead of drugged. They hear the train approach and leave without seeing Ben killed by the train. Richard, who has seen this whole debacle, saves Ben’s life and takes him to his family cabin in the woods. He chains him to a heater, makes sure he’s okay, then leaves to go home.
The following day he returns and tells Ben what’s happened. Ben doesn’t believe him. So Richard drags him to the graveyard that night and the two of them dig up Freddy’s body. In Freddy’s casket is an older man, gaunt and with his fingertips cut off. Someone didn’t want him ever identified. Now Ben’s a believer.
They go to a diner to have something to eat and Ben phones someone, a friend named Jim Bob Luke, a private investigator from Houston. Ben stays at the cabin and Richard goes to work the next day. Jim Bob appears and tells Richard what he’s discovered.
Apparently Freddy got in with a really bad crowd called the Dixie mafia. These people make the Mexican mafia and Italian mafia look like kids. He got in over his head and then was caught by the feds who offered him immunity and witness protection in exchange for turning states’ evidence against the Dixie mafia. Sheriff Price faked his death by burying the burglar under Freddy’s name. Now the Dixie mafia think Freddy is dead.
Ben is determined to speak to his son now that he knows he’s still alive so they all drive to Jim Bob’s ranch in Houston where he raises pigs and cattle. Jim Bob has narrowed the list of new identities in Houston down to two names. One he’s already checked out which leaves only one blue eyed man Freddy’s age and height left, Frank Miller. They all load into Jim Bob’s car and drive to Miller’s house. A huge man in a tiny car careens out of the driveway and plows right into them. Jim Bob is upset because he has a pretty nice car. The huge guy starts beating on Jim Bob, but Jim Bob eventually knocks him out with Ben’s help. The trunk of this tiny car has popped open and Jim Bob sees a box filled with home videos with interesting titles. At first he thinks it’s probably porn, but what if it’s more sinister? He grabs the one with the title Batting Practice. That little video is about to change all of their lives.
While Ben is trying to decide whether or not to call Frank Miller’s phone number and listen to the man’s voice to see if it’s his son, Jim Bob and Richard sit in the living room watching the video. At first it looks like child porn. A young teenage Mexican girl is tied to a bed and two fat white men with masks on are hovering over her. Then one of them comes up to the camera and checks the lens to make sure it’s recording. He smiles for the camera and that’s your cue that he’s enjoying this. No one is making him to it. He lifts a bat in front of the girl and she begins to scream. She does not stop screaming until the second or third blow to the head, but he doesn’t stop. He keeps hitting her with the bat over and over and over again while the other man holds her in place.
Jim Bob and Richard are so sickened by what they see they can barely speak. The man who smiled for the camera is without a doubt Freddy Russell, Ben’s son, the same guy they came to save. :0 This is your holy cow moment and what the film is actually about.
Ben wants to watch the video although both men tell him not to for his own sake. He insists so they go outside and talk while Ben watches his son gang rape and murder a little girl with a baseball bat. When he comes outside he’s shaken and says he has to kill his son because he brought him into the world. Richard wants to go to the police, but Jim Bob tells him that Freddy is in witness protection. They probably already know about it and don’t care. Richard says what about the girl? Jim Bob says she’s a Mexican prostitute across the border illegally. No one is going to care. :0 Don’t go to Texas.
The three men come up with a plan and get more guns. They follow the huge guy with the little car to a Video Store where Freddy is the owner. These guys are making snuff films practically every night with boxes of new videos delivered daily. The horror of it sinks in even deeper, especially with Ben. Richard came along because he was hoping to find out who he really killed. Jim Bob is there because Ben saved his life in the war. But all three of them are sufficiently horrified to agree they have to kill them all. That’s where this novel rocks. It’s about justice and doing what you have to to make the world a better place, a safe place.
They load up the car with their weapons and wait outside of Freddy Russell aka Frank Miller’s house for 11 pm, when the Video Store closes. Freddy arrives with the huge guy in that little car, followed by a van and four other men along with another teenage Mexican prostitute. Now there are six of them. The six get the girl back in the van and drive to outside of town to a huge mansion/hacienda. They’re making another snuff film.
All six men are what you would call white trailer trash. They’re unattractive, slovenly, and unkemp. They’re also very violent. Richard kills at least one while Jim Bob appears to take out three and Ben one. It’s hard to tell because it’s told from Richard’s point of view and he only hears gunshots and shouting. Ben takes out another one after he stabs Jim Bob and then there’s just Freddy who runs outside. Freddy has no pants. He’s just raped that girl which explains the screaming. Ben can’t shoot him, so Freddy shoots all three of them until Ben finally shoots him. As Freddy is dying, Ben tells him he’s his father and finishes him off. Ben dies moments later.
Jim Bob and Richard free the young girl and take her outside, then set the entire mansion/hacienda on fire. The following day, after they’ve treated their injuries at Jim Bob’s house with the help of the girl, Richard takes off and goes back to his family.
10 out of 10 stars. Richard’s journey from victim to killer is thoughtful. He goes from being a man riddled with grief and guilt over killing an armed burglar who tried killing him in his own home to a man who is capable of killing evil men who law enforcement has turned a blind eye to. There were three points in this novel where I had to put down the book and walk away. It was that disturbing. Not for the faint of heart. The cover art is Jim Bob’s car and his interesting license plate.
There’s a forward to the novel, a rare thing, by a guy named Mickle. I looked it up and discovered he directed the movie adaptation of the novel. The movie is slow at times, but so is the novel. One thing I didn’t understand about the movie is that the burglar never shoots at Richard and he shoots anyway. This detracted from the story considerably and was very out of character for Richard Dane. I’m not sure why they changed it.
He brought the gun out of his belt and fired. The bullet snapped past my head and punched the wall behind me. Without really thinking about it, I jerked up the .38 and pulled the trigger.
Reviewed by Devin.