SPILT BLOOD FROM BLOOD TIES: A REVIEW OF ELI CRANOR'S OZARK DOGS BY MEIKE ALANA
Scott Montgomery is undoubtedly one of the best booksellers in the crime fiction community, and with his encyclopedic knowledge of the mystery and thriller genres it’s almost unheard of that there’s a book that I recommend to HIM. In recorded history only two books come to mind— “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden and “Don’t Know Tough” by Eli Cranor. The latter combined two of my great loves—hard-hitting Southern noir and small town Southern high school football (I spent quite a few years as a high school football mom in a small Texas town, so the Friday night lights are in my blood). It was a solid debut from an exciting new voice, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his follow-up.
The wait is over, and Cranor’s sophomore effort “Ozark Dogs” does not disappoint.
The book is set in the small Arkansas town of Taggard where life can be tough. The old nuclear plant that used to provide a living wage to most folks in town closed following an accident. It was replaced by a chicken plant, which brought an influx of immigrants to the area—people who were willing to work for low wages in abysmal conditions. The result was widespread poverty and resentment of the foreign-born newcomers; in an area with a historical undercurrent of white supremacy and rampant drug use, that’s a toxic combination.
Vietnam veteran Jeremiah Fitzjurls has spent his whole life in Taggard, making his home at the junkyard where he ekes out a living. He’s outfitted the junkyard as an armory—guns are what Jeremiah knows best, and he has enough of them “to start a war, or end one.” His sole companion is his grand-daughter Jo, for whom he’ll do anything. She’s the only family Jeremiah has left—he lost both his son and his wife following a devastating night that left another man dead. Jeremiah will do whatever he has to in order to keep Jo safe, which to him means keeping her close. But she’s a senior in high school with a promising future—and her acceptance to the University of Arkansas threatens to take her away.
On the night of homecoming, Jo sneaks away from Jeremiah’s watchful eyes to spend time with her boyfriend, high school quarterback Colt Dillard. She was only planning to spend a few hours and promised Jeremiah she’d be home by midnight. But Jo doesn’t make it home–she’s abducted by someone with a score to settle, someone who plans to use Jo to get revenge on the Fitzjurls family.
Jeremiah suspects she was taken by the Ledfords—a ruthless family notorious for leading white supremacy gatherings and cooking their infamous “Ledford Lightning” meth. Patriarch Bunn and his son Evail have waited a long time to wage their blood feud against the Fitzjurls. Jeremiah knows how dangerous these men are, and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to bring Jo home safely—and he certainly has the firepower to do so.
Almost all of Cranor’s characters have experienced the kind of trauma that can wreak extensive damage to the psyche, the kind that can’t be overcome—family violence, PTSD, drug abuse. The one thing that each of them holds dear, what’s most important, is family—the blood ties that can’t be broken, and which must be protected no matter the cost. These are people who commit horrific acts, but the reader gains an understanding of how and why they became capable of the atrocities they commit. This is where Cranor’s writing shines, in the deep empathy he brings to the stories of these damaged people.