Conor Hultman

Published on November 24th, 2022 | by Conor Hultman


Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “The Mark of Cain,” by Tyler Keith

The Mark of Cain
by Tyler Keith
Cool Dog Sound ($15)
Signed copies are available at Square Books

Tyler Keith’s novel The Mark of Cain trades in the naked city of traditional noir for the backwoods of the Florida Panhandle but make no mistake; this is as hardboiled as it gets.

Ronnie has just been let out on parole, serving six years out of twenty, losing his wife and daughter in the interim. He has to make a choice. There is Camp Eden, an ex-con halfway house-cum-work camp, overseen by the pitiless Sarge. The days are long, the pleasures are few, and the wages make it practically slave labor.

Ronnie checks in and, needing ensured family residence to check out and keep parole, is stuck while he tries to call his wife and daughter out of estrangement. The only other family Ronnie has is Uncle Albert, crime boss of Holmes County, a seedy hardscrabble slice of Florida where the drugs flow and life is cheap.

Ronnie is reluctant; it was working with Uncle Albert that got him in the pen for two dimes to begin with. But the money could set him up to get out of this menial purgatory; some men work at Camp Eden their whole lives, like a surrogate prison after prison. Another stint as a drug runner in the family business could poise Ronnie to win his family back…or lose them, and his freedom, for good.

He doesn’t get to work over his decision for long—a troublemaker with shadowy connections to Uncle Albert has checked into the work camp, and he zeroes in on Ronnie, trying to tempt him back to his old life of vice…

Keith’s crime vision is a fresh issue. The characterization is graceful; our protagonist, with his ambiguities, inner tensions, and small heroisms, is drawn into life with a keen dexterity. The Mark of Cain is like a prison novel, but a prison novel on the extensions of prison, with the threat of going back hanging over every event of the plot.

Holmes County is pictured in the great tradition of other noir writers’ LAs or NYCs to be a hotbed of ample thrills and punishments, where natural law reigns. Unlike reading older noir, Keith’s setting will resonate with the contemporary reader, disturbingly so. The Mark of Cain will carry you through a sensational underworld on a redemption story of biblical proportions. Say a prayer.

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