A Fine Dark Line

( 9 )


It is the summer of 1958 in Dewmont, Texas, a town the great American postwar boom passed by. The kids listen idly to rockabilly on the radio and waste their weekends at the Dairy Queen. And an undetected menace simmers under the heat that clings to the skin like molasses... For thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchell, the end of innocence comes with his discovery of the mysterious long-ago demise of two very different young women. In his quest to unravel the truth about their tragic fates, Stanley finds a protector ...

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A Fine Dark Line

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It is the summer of 1958 in Dewmont, Texas, a town the great American postwar boom passed by. The kids listen idly to rockabilly on the radio and waste their weekends at the Dairy Queen. And an undetected menace simmers under the heat that clings to the skin like molasses... For thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchell, the end of innocence comes with his discovery of the mysterious long-ago demise of two very different young women. In his quest to unravel the truth about their tragic fates, Stanley finds a protector in Buster Lighthorse Smith, a black, retired Indian-reservation cop and a sage on the finer points of Sherlock Holmes, the blues, and life's faded dreams. But not every buried thing stays dead. And on one terrifying night of rushing creek water and thundering rain, an arcane, murderous force will rise from the past to threaten the boy in a harrowing rite of passage... Vintage Lansdale, A Fine Dark Line brims with exquisite suspense, powerful characterizations, and the vibrant evocation of a lost time.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story, A Fine Dark Line is a wonderfully rendered thematic companion piece to The Bottoms, Lansdale's Edgar Award–winning novel of murder and madness. This time out, Lansdale sets his narrative in 1958, in the fictional east Texas hamlet of Dewmont. Balancing gothic details -- buried secrets, sexual perversion, religious mania -- with the everyday pleasures and pains of family life, Lansdale filters his story through the eyes of Stanley Mitchell Jr., an uncommonly naïve 13-year-old who has just moved to Dewmont with his mother, father, and older sister.

The Mitchells own and run the Dew Drop Drive-in, a nostalgic artifact that Lansdale, the poet laureate of drive-ins, describes with accuracy and affection. Over a single eventful summer, Stanley learns about sex, cruelty, endemic racism, and the importance of family bonds. He also unearths a cache of documents pertaining to an unsolved 13-year-old murder case. Together with his sister, Callie, and an irascible, alcoholic projectionist named Buster Abbott Lighthorse Smith, he conducts an investigation of his own. Stanley's obsession with the murders of Margaret Wood, the daughter of a local prostitute, and Jewel Ann Stilwind, a member of Dewmont's leading family, forms the melodramatic center of the novel. But the real heart of this deeply engaging book is Stanley's gradually increasing awareness of the complex, often troubling nature of life in his new hometown. As he probes an unresolved crime, he finds himself in contact with a cast of characters who will alter and enlarge his understanding of the world. Among them are a battered young boy and his fanatical, sadistic father, a large-hearted black cook on the run from her abusive boyfriend, and a family of wealthy sexual predators -- the Stilwinds -- who wield money and influence like a club.

A Fine Dark Line is a touching, funny, effortlessly readable novel told in Lansdale's salty, unmistakable voice. It functions equally well as a novel of character, as a sharply observed evocation of the pre–civil rights South, and as an unconventional murder mystery. Like The Bottoms, it is both a memorable, authentic entertainment and an indelible portrait of a particular time and place. Bill Sheehan

Publishers Weekly
The atmosphere is as thick as an East Texas summer day in Edgar-winner Lansdale's (The Bottoms) engaging, multilayered regional mystery, which harks back to 1958. Thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchel, Jr., has enough on his hands just growing up in Dewmont, Tex., when he literally stumbles on a buried cache of love letters. Stanley pursues the identity of the two lovers with help from the projectionist at his family's drive-in, an aged black man who quotes Sherlock Holmes and doesn't mince words about the world's injustices. As the truth of a gruesome 20-year-old double murder comes to light in the sleepy town, so do the facts of life, death, men, women and race for young Stanley. Unfortunately, this wealth of experience sometimes strains credulity. For instance, Stanley, his sister, Callie, and friend Richard witness a secret burial, see a local phantom, are chased by a murderer and barely miss being hit by a train-all in one night. As the older and wiser Stanley says of the past, "More had happened to my family in one summer than had happened in my entire life." The "down-home" dialect is occasionally overdone, too, with more ripe sayings than Ross Perot on caffeine. But Lansdale clearly knows and loves his subject and enlivens his haunting coming-of-age tale with touches of folklore and humor. (Jan. 8)
Kirkus Reviews
Long and hot-'twas ever thus-is the summer of 1958 in backwater Dewmont, Texas, but almost nothing that happens to13-year-old Stanley Mitchell during its course is remotely typical. Stanley, whose daddy runs the Dew Drop, the town's drive-in theater, is at the outset a thoroughly ordinary boy who likes movies, comic books, riding his bike, and fooling with his dog Nub. Stanley's innocence about life is virtually seamless. He thinks sex, for instance, comes "after five and before the number seven." Enlightenment begins with his accidental discovery of a Pandora's box of strange love letters that once belonged to young, tragically beset Margaret Stilwind, subsequently murdered. Reading them, Stanley is hooked and transformed. Innocent he may be, but he's also the stuff of born detectives, with secrets his natural prey. Helped by remarkable ex-Indian Reservation police officer Buster Lighthorse Smith, he sets out to stalk the sinister Stilwinds, Dewmont's richest, most powerful family. Each Stilwind secret conceals, oyster-like, a variety of others-secrets within secrets. But before Stanley can find the answers he's so intent on, he loses that which you can't lose twice, leaving him feeling "as if something inside had been stolen, taken away and mistreated, then returned without all of its legs." So long, innocence. Funny, scary, heartwarming, heart-pounding, Tom Sawyer-ish, Huck Finn-ish, provocative, evocative, sometimes actually wise: the best ever from talented Lansdale (Captains Outrageous, 2001, etc.)-a genre-crossing tour de force to spark the most jaded appetites.
The Davis, CA Enterprise - Art Amos
A Fine Dark Line has echoes of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like that great American novel, Lansdale 's book grafts a murder mystery onto a coming-of-age story onto a tale of common humanity. It is very good, and it has persuaded me to seek out Lansdale 's earlier novels.
The Times (UK) - Kate Saunders
Entertaining, fast-paced, and bristling with hidden menace.
Albuquerque Journal - David Steinberg
Stanley Mitchel Jr., the protagonist, might easily be seen as a post-World War II Huck Finn… Lansdale’s storytelling is in the same familiar, plain-spoken manner as Jean Shepard's memorable yarns. Lansdale […] has an unerring ability for the spoken language.
The Durham Herald-Sun - Susie Wilde
A Fine Dark Line is much more than a mystery. It's also a coming-of-age story with lots of local color, stunning imagery and an atypical mystery voice.
Tulsa World - Michelle Patterson
Much like Stephen King, Lansdale can get inside the mind of a young person and vividly describe the changes he or she goes through as they "come of age." Stan begins the book lamenting the loss of Santa Claus and ends it coming to grips with abuse, racism, death, murder and redemption.

Lansdale 's latest rings true and very loud as well.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446691673
  • Publisher: Hachette Book Group
  • Publication date: 10/22/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 459,638
  • Age range: 13 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Joe R. Lansdale has written more than a dozen novels in the suspense, horror, and Western genres. He has also edited several anthologies. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, seven Bram Stoker Awards, and an Edgar Award. He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, with his family.
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Read an Excerpt

A Fine Dark Line

By Joe R. Lansdale


Copyright © 2003 Joe R. Lansdale
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0892967293

Chapter One


MY NAME is Stanley Mitchel, Jr., and I'll write down what I recall.

This took place in a town named Dewmont, and it's a true story. It all happened during a short period of time, and it happened to me.

Dewmont got its name from an early settler named Hamm Dewmont. Little else is known about him. He came, gave his name to the place, then disappeared from history. Dewmont, during its early days, was a ratty collection of wooden huts perched on the edge of the Sabine River in the deep heart of East Texas, a place of red clay and white sand, huge pines and snake-infested wetlands.

There are faded photographs in the Dewmont library of a scattering of pioneer hovels on the river's edge as viewed through the lens of a primitive camera. You wouldn't think much would come of this beginning, besides maybe a hard rain and a slide into the river, but through the years, and into the.twentieth century, these shacks gradually inflated into a town as the great trees went down and were turned to lumber.

Later the town swelled into a small city of about one hundred thousand, but these events happened earlier, when my family, the Mitchels, moved there at the tag end of the 1950s. Before we moved to Dewmont my daddy had been a mechanicin a small town of three hundred, appropriately named No Enterprise. One day he came home sick of working beneath cars, lying on cold cement and creaking creepers. He made an announcement that surprised us all. Including Mom.

Daddy loved movies, and somehow he heard about the Dewmont drive-in being for sale. The original owner, not long after opening the theater, had died of a stroke. His family was anxious to move some place west, as debt was clinging to their butts like feathers to tar.

So, Daddy collected our life savings, and using it as a down payment, hauled my mother, who he called Gal, me, my older sister, Caldonia, and my dog, Nub, on over to Dewmont. Dewmont was mostly a long street with brick buildings on either side of Main Street, including our competition in the form of the Palace Theater, an indoor place.

I remember when we first arrived it was a hot clear day and above was a blue sky dotted with clouds, and you could look down Main Street and see cars parked at the curb and people moving about, and way and beyond, tall trees. Our drive-in, the Dew Drop, was set just inside of town across from a ritzy residential area.

I'm sure adults in the ritzy section frowned on the nearby drive-in and its catering to the town's great unwashed, or for that matter, their own children who came to us at a dollar a car load. The Dew Drop was one of those drive-ins where the screen was a residence. These were rare structures, the screens usually being nothing more than a sheet of wood or metal fastened between a large frame, but the builders of the Dew Drop had been progressive and had gone all out.

The Dew Drop's screen was actually a thick building designed to look on the outside like a Western fort. Painted across it was a mural of well-feathered Indians on horseback being pursued by cavalry in sharp blue uniforms and crisp white hats. There were snowy puffs of smoke to show gunfire coming from the pistols and rifles of the soldiers, and one Indian was obviously hit and falling from his horse, to neither ride or scalp again.

Hanging inexplicably above all this on the roof, fastened to a metal frame, was a huge, ocean-blue dew drop, looking as if it were about to drip and explode against the roof, drenching the world.

On the other side, where the cars faced the screen, the wall was white and served as the screen. Above it, this side of the dew drop was painted green, and not a pretty green, but a color that made me think of a puss-filled blister. I wondered why it had been painted at all. At night, when the movie showed, it was lost in the darkness above the reflected light on the screen. Inside the movie screen, our home, it was pretty normal. Downstairs was a kitchen, living room, bath, and Callie's bedroom. Connected to our living quarters was a concession stand that served hot dogs, popcorn, candy, and soft drinks. Shortly after taking over, we added fried chicken and sausage on a stick to the menu.

On the second floor were two bedrooms, one for me, one for Mom and Dad. I was ecstatic about that. Our old house in No Enterprise had one legitimate bedroom, and me and Callie slept in the living room at night on pallets. Here at the Dewdrop we had our own beds, our own privacy, which was great since I had recently discovered the joys of masturbation. Though I hadn't exactly figured out what it was all about, it beat playing checkers against myself.

Above all this was yet another floor, a kind of attic with stairs that led to the roof of the drive-in where the great dew drop resided.

Up there on the roof, you could see the cars coming in, and if you walked to the other side of the roof, you could see what made up our backyard: speakers on posts in tidy rows, and at night, cars and lots of people.

Next to the drive-in structure was a padlocked toolshed, and to the side of that was a playground with a teeter-totter, swings, and a slide for when the kids got bored with the movie. All of this was surrounded by a fence. Mostly tin, with some chain link near the swings and seesaws.

I WORKED at our drive-in during that summer with Caldonia. A black man named Buster Abbot Lighthorse Smith, who had worked for the previous owner, ran the projector. He was old, sullen, strong-looking, said very little. Mostly did his job. He was so quiet you forgot he was around. He came walking in an hour before the show, did his work, put the film away when it was over, and left.

My mother and father opened the drive-in Monday through Saturday, except during rainstorms or the dead of winter. Even in East Texas, it sometimes got too cold for drive-in patrons. For that reason we closed a week before Christmas, didn't open again until the first of March. During that time Daddy did repairs on speakers, hauled in fresh gravel, painted and carpentered. When he wasn't doing that, if he needed the money, he did mechanic work on the lawn of the drive-in. He hated that, longed for the day when he would no longer turn wrenches and listen for air blowing through a leaky manifold.

Daddy loved the drive-in as much as he hated mechanic work. He liked to sit out front sometimes on Sundays, when it wasn't open, in a metal lawn chair, and I'd sit on the ground beside him, usually tormenting ants with a blade of grass. He'd stare at those cowboys and Indians on the front side of the screen as if he were actually watching a movie.

I think in his mind's eye they moved. And maybe it was just the idea of owning his own business that fascinated him. Daddy hadn't come from much, had about a third-grade education. He'd scraped and scrapped for everything he had, and was proud of it. For him, owning that drive-in was as good as being a doctor or a lawyer. And, for the times, for his background, he felt he was making pretty good money.

At thirteen years old, I was the youngest of the Mitchel clan, and not a sophisticated thirteen at that. I was as unaware of the ways of the world as a pig is of cutlery and table manners. I thought sex came after the number five and before the number seven.

Sad to say, I had only recently gotten over believing in Santa Claus and was mad about it. I had been told the truth by kids at school six months before we moved to Dewmont, and had fought a hell of a fight with Ricky Vanderdeer over the matter. I came home with a battered cheek, a black eye, a limp, and a general ass whipping.

My mother, upset over the beating, and a little embarrassed that a child my age still believed in Santa Claus, sat me down and gave me a speech about how Santa may not be real but lived in the hearts of those who believed in him. I was stunned. You could have knocked me over with a wet dog hair. I didn't want a Santa in my heart. I wanted a fat, bearded man in a red suit that brought presents at Christmas and could squeeze through a chimney or a keyhole, which was how Mother told me Santa came into our home, not some nothing living in my heart.

This realization led me to the immediate conclusion that if there was no fat, jolly old elf in a red suit that came by magical sleigh, then there was no Easter Bunny hopping about with colored eggs either, not to mention the Tooth Fairy, one of the few mythical creatures I had honest suspicions about, having found one of the teeth she was supposed to have claimed for a quarter lying under my bed, probably where my mother, the real Tooth Fairy, had dropped it.

I had been set wise and I didn't like it. I felt like a big donkey's ass.

My ignorance did not end with Santa and assorted mythological creatures. I was no whiz at school either. Though I was smarter and better read than most kids, I was so bad at mathematics, it was a firing squad offense.

Having come from No Enterprise, a three-street town with two stores, two alleyways, a filling station, a six-table cafe, and a town drunk we knew by name, and who in a strange way was respected for his dedication to his profession, Dewmont seemed like a metropolis.

Yet, in time Dewmont actually began to feel sleepy. At least on the surface. Especially during the long hot summers. The turmoil of the 1960s was yet to come, and Dewmont was way behind anyway. People dressed and conducted themselves like it was the 1930s, or at the latest, the 1940s. On Sunday men wore thin black ties and heavy black suits and hot wool hats. They always removed their hats when they were inside and they still tipped them at ladies.

Because air-conditioning was rare, even in stores, it was sticky-hot then, indoors and out, as if you had been coated in a thin film of warm molasses. In the summer, those men's suits rested heavy on their victims, like outfits designed for torture. The thin ties lay dead on sweat-stained shirts and the cotton in the shoulders of the suits shifted easily, making lumps; the material held sweat like a sponge holds water; the brims on the wool hats sagged.

In the late afternoons people stripped down to shirtsleeves or even undershirts and sat outside on porches or in metal lawn chairs and talked well after the fireflies came out. Inside, they sat in front of fans.

It didn't get dark during the summer till way late, and the sun, not blocked by tall buildings or housing developments, dipped into the East Texas trees like a fireball. As it died, it looked as if it were setting the woods on fire.

Certain kinds of language now spoken as a matter of course were rarely heard then in polite company. Even the words damn and hell, if women were present, could stun a conversation as surely as a slaughterhouse hammer could stun a cow.

The Depression was long gone, if not forgotten by those who had gone through it. World War Two was over and we had saved the world from the bad guys, but the boom times that had hit the rest of the country had not quite made it to East Texas. Or if they had, they hadn't stayed long. Came in with the oil field wildcatter for a financial quickie, then played out so fast it was hard to remember there had ever been good times.

There was rockabilly, or rock and roll as it became known, on the radio, but there was no abundance of rock and roll feel in the air where we lived. Just a clutch of kids who hung out at the Dairy Queen afternoons and evenings, especially thick on Friday and Saturday nights.

A few of the guys, like Chester White, had ducktails and hotrods. Most guys had pretty short hair with a pompadour rise in front and plenty of hair oil on it. Wore sharp-creased slacks, starched white shirts, and polished brown shoes, drove their daddy's car when they could get it.

The girls wore poodle skirts and ponytails, but the most radical thing they did was play the same tune over and over on the jukebox, mostly Elvis, and some of the Baptist kids danced in spite of the lurking threat of hell and damnation. The colored knew their place. Women knew their place.

Gay was still a word for "happy." Children were still thought by many best seen and not heard. Stores closed on Sunday. Our bomb was bigger than their bomb and the United States Army couldn't be beat by anyone. Including Martians. The President of the United States was a jolly, grandfatherly, fat, bald man who liked to play golf and was a war hero.

Being blissfully ignorant, I thought all was right with the world.

Excerpted from A Fine Dark Line by Joe R. Lansdale Copyright © 2003 by Joe R. Lansdale
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2015


    A very good book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2013

    5 stars +...

    This is an endearing tale that will always be with me. Thank you Mr. Lansdale for sharing your gift. For all you fellow readers, this is the 5th book of his I have read ( I am a constant reader ) and this guy is a master storyteller.

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  • Posted September 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    4.25 stars!

    A nice suprise! I really enjoyed this novel of Lansdale's (much more than The Bottoms. I found it to be a very entertaining and nostalgic coming of age/mystery story told in the folksy style of a 13 year old in the 1950s. The 1950s seem to be a great time of which to write due to it's innocence and it's conflicting darkness (in this case, racism, child abuse, spouse abuse) and this one has it all...it sounds dark, but it made me laugh on several occassions. I was sold early on in this story for two reasons: first Lansdale's dedication, "In memory of Cooter. Brave, True, and Nobel Protector. Friend. Family dog." (as those who know me are aware, I'm a big believer of dogs being part of the family); and second, after reading this passage, "Like Huckleberry Finn, Richard wasn't the sort that would make a great adult, but he was one hell of a kid. He could ride a bike faster than the wind, could toss a pocketknife between his toes and not stick himself, knew the woods, could climb a tree like a gibbon, and juggle four rubber balls at a time." This is just one example of the Lansdale's simple prose you will find in this story--and the tale "ain't" bad either!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2003

    The 'Grown-Up' companion to 'To Kill A Mockingbird'

    As one review printed on the book jacket says: 'an x-rated version of the Andy Griffith show, but as memorable as Harper Lee's 'To Kill A Mockingbird'' is the shortest way to describe the moving yet disturbing plot of this Lansdale novel. I chose this book at random in the library, and I haven't been able to put it down yet. Lansdale is definetly one of the authors I will now be following.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2003


    Like his previous Edgar winner "THE BOTTOMS" Joe R. Lansdale has again delivered the goods with "A FINE DARK LINE". Chock full of his one liners and one heck of a great nostalgic mystery, A fine dark line ranks rights up there with Joe's best. Just read the reviews from Harriet and Wayne above, they tell it all. Loved the characters and the history and the charm of this wonderful story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2002


    In Joe R. Lansdale¿s newest novel, A FINE DARK LINE, the reader is carried back to the summer of 1958 when thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchell, Jr. and his family move to Dewmont, Texas to take over the ownership of the town¿s only drive-in movie theater. This is the summer that Stanley will lose his childhood innocence and learn that there¿s no Santa Claus, what sex is really about, the ugly truth concerning racism, and the painful reality about death, murder and the human monsters that hide behind the masks of one¿s next-door neighbors. It¿s also the summer that young Stanley begins to learn about the power of friendship, family, love, and the unrelenting courage that¿s needed in the face of horror. Stanley¿s journey into adulthood begins when he finds a half-buried metal box filled with old love letters near a burnt-down house in the woods behind the drive-in theater where he and his family now live. The letters belonged to a young girl who was gruesomely murdered almost two decades before. The fact that the crime was never solved triggers Stanley¿s curiosity. With the help of his older sister, Caldonia, and his new friends Richard Chapman and old Buster Lighthorse Smith, he begins to slowly, but persistently, dig into the past, not knowing that what he discovers will change his life forever. Brilliantly written by one of America¿s top authors, A FINE DARK LINE carries us back to when comic books were a nickel, Tarzan movies played on TV in the mornings, and a young boy could believe that the fictional John Carter of Mars actually existed. This was a time when anything seemed possible, and small-town life during the hot, sweltering summer months was slow and relaxed, and the local teenagers flocked to the drive-in theater at night to see the newest movies and to make out in their cars. Mr. Lansdale is able to capture the pure ambience of these forgotten memories with a simplicity of words that draws the reader into the story as if he/she was walking the streets of Dewmont with Stanley and his dog, Nub. Each of the main and supporting characters are fully developed individuals that you either love or hate, and one can¿t help finding themselves laughing out loud as Stanley learns about the ¿birds and the bees¿ from Caldonia and Buster, or feeling the soul-wrenching emptiness as he experiences first hand from the Mitchell¿s housekeeper, Rosy Mae, how terrible men can be toward the women they love. This is not only a journey for Stanley, but one for the reader as well. You¿ll come away with a little more knowledge of what it means to be a human being in all of its mixed-up aspects. Like Mr. Lansdale¿s previous award-winning novel, THE BOTTOMS, this book is what I would call a ¿life experience,¿ and it¿s one I would highly recommend to any person wishing more than a casual read. Entertaining, thought provoking, and nostalgic, A FINE DARK LINE is a true masterpiece from one of America¿s most gifted writers.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    haunting historical novel

    In the summer of 1958, the Mitchel family moves to Dewmont, East Texas to run the drive-in movie theatre, which they just bought. They hire half black-half Indian Buster Lighthouse Smith to operate the projector and a black woman Rosy to help Mrs. Mitchell with the cooking and the cleaning. Thirteen year old Stanley Jr. becomes closer to Buster and Rosy than he does to his parents because they listen to his dreams and fears. While playing with his dog Nub, Stanley finds a half-buried chest. When he opens it he discovers inside a bunch of love letters written in 1942. There are no signatures on the letters only initials and Stanley becomes obsessed with finding out who wrote them and what happened to them. He figures out who the writers were by questioning various townsfolk. He and Buster, a former Seminole police officer, investigate further, an action that puts him, his family and his two friends in danger. A FINE DARK LINE is a powerful coming of age tale set in a place and time when people of influence can get away with murder. The summer of 1958 is a traumatic time for the protagonist as he learns about sex, incest, homosexuality, and wife beating while someone tries to kill him. He successfully blackmails the town¿s most powerful citizens yet understands his experiences are meaningless in the greater scheme of life. Joe R. Lansdale once again transcends genre to write a haunting historical novel focusing on the human condition. Harriet Klausner

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    Posted June 6, 2010

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    Posted November 18, 2008

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    Posted January 3, 2010

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    Posted January 1, 2010

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