The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Vintage Crime
Format: Paperback
Genre: Historical | Mystery


It’s 1933 in East Texas and the Depression lingers in the air like a slow moving storm. When a young Harry Collins and his little sister stumble across the body of a black woman who has been savagely mutilated and left to die in the bottoms of the Sabine River, their small town of Marvel Creek is instantly charged with tension. When a second body turns up, this time of a white woman, there is little Harry can do from stopping his Klan neighbours from lynching an innocent black man. Together with his younger sister, Harry sets out to discover who the real killer is, and to do so they will search for a truth that resides far deeper than any river or skin colour.


The Bottoms should be a poignant coming of age story about 11 year-old Harry Collins and his 9 year-old sister, Tom (Thomasina) as narrated by Harry throughout. Lansdale really knows how to set and dress a scene, and is almost lyrical in some of his descriptions of place and people, but again and again, we are jolted out of the story by the use of graphic and vulgar language. And while we are not given a first-person account of what happened to the murder victims as young Harry is our narrator, Lansdale makes up for it in other ways by having others visually describe the victim’s injuries in painful detail.

This doesn’t make for tense storytelling, but detracts from the over-all narrative as there seems to be no consequences. Characters wince and nod they are sorry and carry on as if it’s okay because the victims, for the most part, were coloured prostitutes.

I understand Lansdale is trying to show how it might have been during this era, in the 30s, during segregation and the different lives whites and coloured people lived. But at times it comes across as patronising and a little too cliched. Which is a shame, as the character of Harry is charming, and his interactions with his father are rewarding, as are his interactions with Miss Maggie.

A frustrating read because this story (at times) unfolded beautifully, and we really feel a sense of place and time, only to be jerked out with what felt like shock value descriptions. Maybe necessary once to make your skin crawl and get across how horrific the serial killer is, but certainly not several more times through out.

For me reading The Bottoms was a missed opportunity by the author. It could have been written so differently and, as a result, truly been something of a classic. If, and that’s a big IF, if the racial tensions had been given a little more consideration, and treated with a little more dignity. With a few less cliched depictions of the coloureds, the Klan and, in general, the townsfolk of the day. Instead, what could have been a thoroughly enjoyable read, became tedious.

This is most definitely not To Kill A Mockingbird, as some would have you believe.

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