This novel of Depression-era East Texas is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Rich in description and period detail, it is narrated by elderly nursing home resident Harry Crane. Harry relates the events surrounding the gruesome murders of several women in and around his 1930’s east Texas hometown of Marvel Creek.
The “bottoms” are the swampy areas along the Sabine River where the foliage is dense, cottonmouths are common sights, and the atmosphere is foreboding. It is in the bottoms where Harry and his sister Tom find the first corpse, naked, horribly mutilated and tied to a tree with barbed wire.
Harry and Tom report the horror to their dad, Jacob, who, besides being a farmer and the town barber, is also the local constable. Jacob stands alone, though, among his white neighbors in desiring justice for the murder of this black woman. Since he cannot persuade his hometown doctor to perform an autopsy, he takes the corpse to the “colored” community of Pearl Creek. There, Doctor Tinn determines that the rape/murder of the black prostitute was committed by a psychopath. Other authorities in the white community believe that Jacob should drop the case, because black crime is not their (or his) business. But after another woman is found dead, and then another, a white woman, they realize there is a monstrous serial killer at work in the area.
If this sounds like a horror story, it is. A sense of terrible evil pervades the novel. Along with the element of horror there is also suspense and a domestic drama and coming of age story. Lansdale’s major themes are race and the accompanying injustices and indignities heaped upon the black residents of that place and time, and also Harry’s loss of innocence. Suspense is maintained at fever pitch throughout the novel. Mystery fans who enjoy tracing plot details so that they add up to make perfect sense may be disappointed as the time line is difficult to follow. Rich in folklore, unforgettable characters, and atmosphere as seen through a child’s eyes, The Bottoms is a fascinating, haunting and enjoyable read.