S. A. Cosby is the reigning young king of tough rural suspense. He walks in the hallowed footsteps of Joe R. Lansdale and Jim Thompson. Hard, almost ruthless stories of bedraggled people living lives of desperation.

My wife gave me an ARC of Ozark Dogs, by Eli Cranor. The title and the cover design invoke Cosby's books. Not only that, S.A. provides a laudatory blurb for the novel. There's a lot of mutual back-scratching going on in the publishing world, but I've met Cosby and I believe he has maintained his integrity.

Yes, Ozark Dogs is similar in many ways to a S.A. Cosby story. The location is different and the character mannerisms are miles apart, but both authors have blurry lines of morality and protagonists who teeter along both sides of the law.

Ozark Dogs features an Arkansas community in turmoil. It's a depressed area, filled with alcoholics and meth-heads. Jeremiah, a tough old junkyard owner, has a mind filled with horrific images of his time in Vietnam. His family history is riddled with hatred and violence. He lives to care for his beloved granddaughter.

The Ledfords are a shadowy family of criminals. A longtime blood feud between Jeremiah and the Ledfords explodes when the granddaughter is kidnapped in order to be used as barter with south of the border meth dealers. Jeremiah has to face bloodthirsty drug barons, Klan members, and his own demons as he tries to determine the motives and loyalties of both families and find his granddaughter.

Ozark Dogs is a good novel. I raced through the book in a couple of days. It isn't perfect. I predicted most of the dramatic twists. Some of the prose is almost flowery, which is incongruous to the harsh nature of the story. I cringed a few times at purple descriptions Cranor uses. Cosby has his boots more firmly placed on solid earth in his books.

On the very positive side, Cranor's characters ring with authenticity. I believed I was in the presence of these people. His sense of place is unerring. I could see the sights, smell the odors, feel the tension the individuals in Ozark Dogs were going through.

I plan to go back and read Eli Cranor's debut novel, Don't Know Tough. I'll also look forward to his next publication. He has the goods to be among the very best at his game.

Written by Mark Sieber

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