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A Fine Dark Line    by Joe R. Lansdale order for
Fine Dark Line
by Joe R. Lansdale
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

Stanley Mitchell's family has recently moved to Dewmont, a sleepy little town in Texas. It's the late 1950's, and the civil rights movement hasn't gained full momentum as of yet. Blacks and whites still pretty much keep themselves to themselves. However, in the Mitchell family, this is about to change. Buster Lighthouse Smith is an old, morose colored man who runs the projector at the drive-in theater that Stanley's dad bought when they moved. Usually sullen and quiet, one day Buster comes in to work in a talkative mood, owing to the early celebration he's begun on account of his birthday. He and Stanley strike up a friendship based on this experience, and soon are embarked on an adventure investigating an unsolved double murder that happened twenty years before.

Two teenage girls both died on the same night. Although their deaths weren't investigated as being related (one died in a supposed accident in a house fire and the other was brutally murdered by the train tracks), they were the same age and were close friends at the time of their deaths. Stanley becomes interested when he accidentally stumbles over a box of love letters from someone in the Stillwell family (the family of the fire victim) that he finds on their old property, and soon Buster is curious enough to lend his help in trying to solve the old mystery. Smalltown, Deep South USA is captured well in this second novel by Joe R. Lansdale. Stanley's family, while not rigid about it, for the most part accept the status quo on race issues, until their cleaning lady has to leave her house to avoid being beaten by her boyfriend. After the Mitchells offer her their home, she quickly becomes 'real' to them.

The characters are well-developed and interesting, although sometimes their actions and speech are slightly unbelievable, as in the depth of sexual information that Buster is willing to impart to thirteen year-old Stanley, in a very casual manner. The father is believable and humorous, as the outraged father protecting his young daughter from the suspect attentions of an old boyfriend, and as the man of the house who is aware of his exact place, as dictated by his wife. Stanley himself is a typical thirteen-year-old boy of the time, more innocent than many kids of today. Bored by the long, hot summer, he is all too ready to throw himself wholeheartedly into solving the old murders. Each time he believes he knows all the answers, his assumptions get knocked down; when the real truth finally emerges, it astonishes everyone involved.

A Fine Dark Line is an enjoyable read, with some exciting events and interesting prose. At times sex seems too pervasive, but not in an overly crude manner, just somewhat intrusive. The action becomes involving, but the end of the book is somewhat of an anti-climax, lending a sense of letdown to the reader. Still, this is a good read and one full of authentic Southern flavor, which I thoroughly appreciate, being an Alabama girl myself who grew up not long after the time period related here. I look forward to reading Mr. Lansdale's future novels.

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