A Fine Dark Line by Joe Lansdale is a trip back in time to 1958 (or 1955 depending on which page you’re on) when thirteen year-old Stanley Mitchel and 74 year-old Buster Abbot Lighthorse Smith set out to solve two murders committed over a decade earlier. The synopsis makes it sound like this is a murder mystery, but really it’s a coming of age story about a thirteen year old boy who has led a pretty sheltered life.
10 out of 10 stars. I had no problem reading this in one sitting. I only wish the author had stopped at the second to last chapter and left the rest off. I also wish there was more detail to the actual murders. It’s as though they were put in as an afterthought at the very end.
In two places in the novel, the author refers to the events occurring in 1958. However, in the middle of the novel he mentions the events happening when he was thirteen years old and he was born in early 1942 which makes the date 1955. Regardless, the story is told in first person past tense as the author, now in his 50s, looks back on that summer when he solved the murder of two teenage girls, crimes committed over a decade earlier.
Stanley Mitchel’s family moves to Dewmont in east Texas after Stanley’s dad tires of his old job and decides to buy a drive-in theatre. Their house is the screen to the drive-in so it becomes an integral part of their daily lives. They charge a dollar per car and make enough money on Saturdays to hold them over the rest of the week, which is a big deal for Stanley’s father who has nothing more than a third grade education. The town irreverently calls the Mexican population wetbacks and the black population niggers. The more polite residents call them colored. Colored folks live on the east end of town over by the creek and the lake where it smells to high heaven in the dog days of summer. White residents live in the middle of town and the northwest end of town while the southeast end of town is for the really rich white people. The drive-in, called the Dew Drop Drive-In, is on the northwest corner of town directly across the freeway from the very wealthy. Although not everyone is a devout Christian, throughout eastern Texas there is the blue law which says you don’t work on Sundays. Everything shuts down on Sundays and the few places that are open will certainly not sell you things that would permit you to work. That sets the mood for a very scary novel.
While the family is running the drive-in over the summer, Mr. Mitchel hires a colored woman, Rosy Mae Bell, to cook and clean for them while Mrs. Mitchel works the concession stand and cooks all the food. Stanley quickly latches onto Rosy and they become co-conspirators of sorts. She tells him everything she wouldn’t tell anyone else and he does the same. Within a few weeks, while playing with his dog Nub alongside the fence that lines the drive-in, Stanley discovers a staircase in a tree. When he looks up he finds the remains of a house that burned down years earlier. He also finds, by tripping over it, a locked metal box full of love letters from M to J. They aren’t just love letters. There are also pages torn from a very intimate journal. On the very same day that Stanley finds this box, his father finds a used condom in his sixteen year-old sister Callie‘s room and beats her boyfriend Chester to a pulp. This becomes a side story in which she eventually discovers that Chester’s old girlfriend has been launching condoms filled with shampoo into all the bedrooms of the girls Chester has dated. That ends that relationship and she picks up a new much nicer boyfriend Drew.
Eventually life’s events make him remember the box at about the same time he gets to know the projectionist, Buster. Buster is part Seminole and used to be a lawman for the Seminole tribe. All Seminole lawmen are called Lighthorse. I found that interesting. Plus Buster has lived there forever and knows everything. Stanley tells him about the box and Buster tells him about the wealthy Stilwind family who used to own the property the drive-in is on. About 16 years ago, their house was burned down with their youngest daughter Jewel Ellen, inside. The family sold the land and moved across the freeway to the rich part of town. What remains of their house is in those trees. They also had a son, James Ray. On the same night the house burned down, across town in the poor white section, Margret Wood, daughter of a mixed race prostitute, was murdered on the railroad tracks and decapitated. Rumor has it her ghost wanders the tracks at night searching for her lost head. Stanley immediately thinks the M is Margret and the J is James. Buster agrees. So Buster uses his cousin, who conveniently works as a janitor at both the newspaper office and the police station, to gather up old newspaper clippings and police reports and try to figure out what happened to the two murdered girls.
They pour over the letters from the box and discover that M was pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby and said they could raise it together. Considering her family was from the wrong side of the tracks and James’ family was wealthy, it has all the earmarks of a murder. But how did Jewel get involved? Was she killed by accident? In the police reports they learn that Jewel was tied to the bed by wire on both her wrists and ankles.
Meanwhile, Rosy’s live-in lover Bubba Joe beats her almost to death, enough that she runs to the Mitchels and asks for help. They take her in and make her a part of the family, something unheard of in 1950s east Texas. She sleeps on the living room sofa at first and then Mr. Mitchel makes an apartment for her out of one of the upstairs rooms. Bubba Joe, who is 6’4″ and 300 pounds of meanness begins stalking the family, especially Stanley who is often out riding his bike alone.
Stanley discovers the Stilwind’s house is across the freeway from them and so rides his bike over there to find out where they live. The rich kids there are insulting until Drew tells them off and comes to talk to Stanley. He tells him the Stilwind’s house is at the top of the hill but they haven’t lived in it for years. Mrs. Stilwind is in an old people’s home and Mr. Stilwind lives in the hotel. Their son James lives in town and never comes out to the house, so it’s been for sale for years. It’s haunted so no one will buy it. Stanley rides up the hill and gets in through the unlocked back door. He sees an old woman and thinks it’s a ghost, so he runs out of the place as fast as he can. He’s riding downhill toward the freeway and breaks, but the bike slides right into the freeway and both Stanley and Nub are narrowly missed by a semi-truck and then a car. The only injuries he suffers are a broken leg and a concussion. He was very lucky. So was Nub.
Here’s the point where Stanley realizes there is a fine dark line between the world of the living and the world of the dead. As he recovers, he and Buster poor over the journal pages, the letters, the newspaper clippings, and the police reports. Buster tells Stanley that the ghost he saw wasn’t a ghost but the real Mrs. Stilwind. Friends of Buster’s who work at the old people’s home say she leaves the old people’s home and walks home until someone goes to fetch her which usually takes a few weeks. He saw the old woman.
Stanley’s best friend Richard Chapman comes and goes and each time he appears he’s been severely beaten by his father who also beats on Richard’s mother. He pretends he’s a preacher (he’s a farmer) and has set up their barn to look like a small church complete with bloody crucifix hanging on the wall. Not all the blood on that crucifix is animal. Much of it is Richard’s.
Stanley and Richard decide to go check out the railroad tracks late at night and see if they can spot Margret’s ghost. Callie catches them and goes along. They see lights along the tracks that seem to jump from one side to the next in a ghostly way that no human could mimic and then Bubba Joe suddenly appears as a train approaches. He’s got a knife in his hand and Rosy has warned them he’s cut people before. They run from Bubba and he chases them practically into the train, but they escape as the train goes by, jumping across the tracks, leaving Bubba on the other side. They are all frightened, but they don’t tell anyone.
The next day Buster misses work and Mr. Mitchel tells Stanley if he misses another day he’s fired. Knowing that Buster is probably home drunk, Stanley leaves in the middle of a thunderstorm to go warn Buster. When he gets there Buster is dead drunk and won’t wake up, so Stanley sits at his table reading the clippings and Buster’s notes. Buster wakes up and is furious with Stanley for trying to save his job. He screams at him and kicks him out into the pouring rain. Bubba is standing across the street waiting. Stanley has no other choice but to try to run home, so he takes off and Bubba chases him. When Bubba catches him, he drags him near the creek and pulls out a knife. He’s about to kill Stanley when Nub bites his leg and won’t let go. Buster appears and takes down Bubba with jujitsu, then slits his throat with a knife. All of this takes place during the thunderstorm. Buster drags Bubba’s body to the creek and dumps it, then tells Stanley not to tell a soul. Stanley thanks him for saving his life. They go back to Buster’s and they talk.
Margret’s mother Winnie is a prostitute and a cheap prostitute at that because she is mixed race, part Indian, part Mexican, part white, part black. Her live-in lover is a black man who is also her pimp. Buster goes over there with a couple of Margret’s letters and talks to her. She started pimping out Margret when she was thirteen years old, but Margret hated it. When Margret fell in love with Jewel Ellen the girls decided they would run away to Hollywood. The problem was that Jewel was pregnant. Not Margret. Jewel. Margret wanted her to keep it and they could raise it together because otherwise it would be difficult for two lesbians to have kids. This was a lot of information for thirteen year-old Stanley who thought the condom his father found in Callie’s bedroom was a water balloon. Just a year ago he still believed in Santa Claus. Winnie also told Buster that Jewel’s dad paid her to keep quiet about the girls’ relationship after the night they were both murdered. So she has always assumed it was Mr. Stilwind who murdered Margret and Jewel.
They also discover from the police reports that one night when she was 13 years old, the older daughter Susan Stilwind came to the Sheriff begging him for help because she was being raped by a family member. Mr. Stilwind showed up and paid off the Sheriff to keep the whole thing quiet. But the Sheriff wrote the details down, kept copies and gave copies to people who would make it public if anything ever happened to him, and forced Stilwind to send his daughter away. She had come to the Sheriff begging him to take her away from her family so she’d be safe. And he did. Mr. Stilwind sent her to England. She was pregnant, something the Sheriff noted in the report.
While Stanley is out playing with Nub, Mr. Chapman attacks him. Callie sees this and throws rocks at Chapman who threatens both of them. Mr. Mitchel comes and beats Chapman to a pulp. But it’s almost a week before Stanley sees Richard again. Meanwhile, Stanley and Callie want to question James Stilwind. Maybe he knows something. Callie is beautiful and so James offers to show her the projection room at his indoor theatre downtown. Once inside he tries raping her. She fights him off and when Stanley realizes something is wrong, he pounds on the door and screams loud enough that James comes to the door. He’s ripped Callie’s blouse and she’s scratched and bloodied his face. They get out of there, go home, and tell their mother and Rosy. Mr. Stilwind, the old man, shows up before they can even tell Mr. Mitchel. Then everything comes out. Stilwind wants to buy their silence. Mr. Mitchel threatens both him and his son. Stilwind tells them he owns the cops and they will be getting pulled over and cited repeatedly until they leave town. Mr. Mitchel tells him to leave.
About this time Richard finally shows up. He’s been living in the woods for the past week. His father yanked him out of bed in the middle of the night and began whipping him furiously, then kicked him out of the house. So the Mitchels bring him into their house, clean him up, give him food and clothes, and make him a part of the family too.
One night Stanley and Richard decide to take one last try at finding Margret’s ghost near the railroad tracks. But they hear crying in the dark and stop to investigate. They find Richard’s dad, Mr. Chapman, burying something in a quilt. It’s their dog Butch. Mr. Chapman loved that dog like he was never able to love Richard and that makes him really sad and really angry. So a few days later, Richard decides to go out in the middle of the night to dig up Butch and drop his body on his father’s porch so he’ll feel horrible the way Richard feels. Stanley insists on coming along. Richard takes the shovel from his family’s barn and little do they know that Mr. Chapman follows them to that grave in the woods. Richard digs up Butch and discovers there are human skulls and bones in that grave, some old, some very recent. One of the skulls is most certainly Margret’s complete with that front silver tooth. Another one belongs to a Mexican worker Richard’s father hired not long ago. Mr. Chapman appears and comes at the boys with a scythe (the favored tool of Death) and chases them into the old sawmill. Richard lays a trap for him and Chapman gets injured and drops the scythe. Richard picks it up and beheads his father. But during Chapman’s ranting, Richard discovers he wasn’t his biological father, but the product of his mother’s “mistake”.
The boys are put on home probation and slowly life goes back to normal. Mr. Chapman said he killed Margret for being a lesbian, but he never mentioned Jewel. So who killed Jewel?
This is where the novel goes south. Months go by and eventually Richard runs away, taking Stanley’s boots with him. Years go by and eventually Mr. Stilwind is murdered by a young woman seen going to his room. All that’s left behind is a pair of gloves made in England. So we can assume it was Susan finally doing him in for raping her all those times. The author goes on to tell us what happened to every character and I wish he hadn’t.
10 out of 10 stars. I went into this thinking it was a murder mystery but really it’s a coming of age story about a boy from a small town in Texas that had a serial killer, a serial rapist, and some other seriously disturbed individuals. That’s a lot for such a small town. I wish the author had spent more time on the actual solving of the murders. They were put in as an afterthought and the real storyline was Stanley’s coming of age. I was interested in the murder mystery part. Fortunately there were enough clues fed to keep me interested enough to read the entire book.
Reviewed by Devin.