Cover image of "All the Sinners Bleed," a novel classified as Southern noir

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Blood and tears. Violence and mayhem. Love and hate. These were the rocks upon which the South was built. They were the foundation upon which Charon County stood.” So writes S. A. Cosby at the outset of his disquieting new crime novel, All the Sinners Bleed. This is Southern noir at its eloquent best. Cosby’s Charon County is the rural South writ large, where the terror of Jim Crow still echoes loudly. In 2017, a statue of a Confederate war hero stands tall beside the courthouse. It’s the site of confrontations between angry White men marching in Confederate uniforms and equally angry Black counterprotestors. Yet Titus Crown, a Black man, now serves as Charon County’s Sheriff. And when an active shooter turns up at Jefferson Davis High School, it’s Sheriff Crown and his deputies, both White and Black, who rush to meet the killer.

Charon County’s first-ever Black sheriff

Titus Crown was a football hero at Jefferson Davis High. Now, two decades later, he has returned to Charon County, a criminology graduate of the prestigious University of Virginia and a veteran of the FBI. At the Bureau, he had worked in Behavioral Science (profiling) and combating domestic terrorism. And he will need every trace of strength, skill, and insight he gained during those twenty years. Because that school shooting will metastasize into a horrific set of crimes that will claim headlines across the country.

All the Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby (2023) 352 pages ★★★★★

Photo of downtown in a small town on the coast of Virginia like the town in this Southern noir novel
Downtown in a small settlement on the coast of Virginia, like the setting of the novel. Image: Southern Living

The truth will shock them all

Titus Crown is only nominally the protagonist of Cosby’s story. In a larger sense, the presence that haunts this Southern noir tale is Charon County itself and the historical burden it carries only a stone’s throw from the capital of the Confederacy. Titus lives with that burden on a daily basis. “The moment he announced his candidacy he had made a choice to live in a no-man’s-land between people who believed in him, people who hated him because of his skin color, and people who believed he was a traitor to his race.”

And never has that reality shouted out so loudly as at Jefferson Davis High. There, two of his White deputies shoot to kill Latrell MacDonald, the troubled young Black man who had killed the county’s most beloved teacher, Jeff Spearman. Because now the chairman of the board of supervisors, most of his own deputies, and of course the white supremacist crazies are all furious about Jeff Spearman’s murder. Meanwhile, the most vocal elements in the Black community rage at him for allowing his deputies to shoot Latrell MacDonald. And the distrust and the rage will only grow as Titus moves methodically to investigate why Latrell had been shouting that Mr. Spearman was a monster who needed to be killed. The truth will shock them all.

Southern noir in the hands of a brilliant writer

S. A. Cosby is a masterful stylist. Reporting on the aftermath of the school shooting, for example, he writes “there were moments like today when the true nature of existence was revealed to him. Moments when the ephemeral curtain of divine composition was pulled away and entropy strode across the stage. For all his attempts at control, days like today, when he’d seen a boy he’d known since infancy get his chest cratered, reminded him that chaos was the true nature of things.”

And here’s Cosby again: “Titus couldn’t help but feel like he was a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. A man cursed to forever miss a departing train by just a few minutes. That was what policing a small town felt like some days. You were always a day late and a dollar short. You stood there over a broken body covered in bruises or a wrecked car that reeked of whiskey, with your broom and your dustpan and a mouthful of regret. Just a janitor tasked with picking up the pieces of someone’s broken life.”

Southern noir of the highest order? You bet.

About the author

Photo of S. A. Cosby, author of this Southern noir novel
S. A. Cosby in 2023 at the National Book Festival. Image: Wikipedia

Shawn Andre Cosby (S. A. Cosby) was born in 1973 in Newport News, Virginia and today lives nearby in Gloucester on the York River. He has written four widely acclaimed novels classified by critics as Southern noir. An earlier novel, Blacktop Wasteland, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2020.

“I love where I come from,” Cosby said in an interview with NPR. “But to paraphrase James Baldwin, because I love the South, I reserve the right to criticize, because I know it can be better than what it is. . . If there’s a place that is more haunted by its past and more overwhelmed by its original sin than the South, I’m unaware of it.”

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