Book Review

"As with any good crime thriller / mystery, the plot -- as chilling as it is -- serves as a subterfuge to explore the darker realms of the hero's psyche," writes Russell Cobb of Stephen Graham Jones' All the Beautiful Sinners, "as well as themes of collective memory and identity." Jones will be at BookPeople on Tuesday, May 6, at 7pm.

Book Review

All the Beautiful Sinners

by Stephen Graham Jones

Rugged Land, 352 pp., $23.95

In Stephen Graham Jones' thriller, the Tin Man has gone biblical on a large swath of the Southern Plains, murdering pairs of Native American children as tornadoes sweep through towns with names like Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jericho. Imagine the laconic Sherman Alexie meeting the bombastic Stephen King on the Texas High Plains.

In terse, edgy prose, Jones zigzags across time and space while his hero, Jim Doe -- a deputy sheriff and Blackfeet Indian -- attempts to unravel the killer's intricate, bloody allegory. As more pairs of semimummified, shellacked, and waxed children turn up, everyone from the Texas Rangers to the FBI attempts to solve the riddle of the Tin Man's "ritual mutilation."

For a trio of FBI agents assigned to the case, nothing about the killer's m.o. seems arbitrary -- not even his fondness for Steely Dan's The Royal Scam, which he blares from his 1985 Chevy Impala, tearing through the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and into western Kansas.

Jones uses the interior monologue of FBI agent Sheila Watts to connect the dots: "steely dan. Before it was a band, it was a slang term for a marital aid, a vibrator, a dildo. Pointing to sex. Which fit -- the control angle, at least: surgically altering the corpses, arranging them, manipulating the crime scene, making omniscient phone calls in a godlike voice. Sex was killing and killing was sex."

Deputy Doe, meanwhile, discovers a Native American myth about a figure that follows in the trail of twisters, snapping up pairs of children, always one boy, one girl. Could the killer, Doe wonders, be an Indian as well?

As with any good crime thriller/mystery, the plot -- as chilling as it is -- serves as a subterfuge to explore the darker realms of Jim Doe's psyche, as well as themes of collective memory and identity. Doe's rather conventional quest to find the Tin Man becomes complicated as he discovers eerie similarities between himself and the killer. As Doe unrolls handmade fliers of the killer's profile in small towns across Kansas, he encounters the same response. "Is this a joke?" a girl at a truckstop asks. "'It's not me,' Jim Doe said. He had to say it in Montezuma and in Jetmore and in Bazine already." Doe begins to question his very identity: "Maybe he's changed his appearance. Become Jim Doe. Or maybe he'd been him all along."

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More by Russell Cobb
Field Study: Stories
Rachel Seiffert's sparse, airy prose belies a profound concern with individual identity and historical memory

Sept. 24, 2004

Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies
'You might call Lawrence Weschler's most recent collection of peripatetic musings, 'Vermeer in Bosnia,' a series of tangents or digressions,' Russell Cobb writes, 'but this would ignore the fact the tangent is often the tale.'

Aug. 20, 2004


All the Beautiful Sinners, Stephen Graham Jones, Rugged Land

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