The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale (Best Novel, 2001)
By Adam WagnerNovember 29, 2019
Part mystery, part horror, and part coming-of-age tale, The Bottoms proves to be a worthy Edgar Award winner.
I’d like to start this review of Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms by admitting that my only exposure to his work prior to this 2001 Edgar Award winner was a love of the film adaptation of Bubba Ho-Tep (which I only recently learned was based on a Lansdale short story) and a general understanding of the Hap & Leonard TV series that came from editing/producing Thomas Pluck’s reviews on this very site. I was aware of his accolades and fame and near-cult-like following, and I wrongly assumed based on my limited exposure that Mr. Lansdale’s writing was “genre.” But after reading The Bottoms (and subsequently seeking out some of his other stories), I realized I couldn’t be farther from the truth—Joe Lansdale is simply a phenomenal storyteller.
When I first picked up The Bottoms, I was expecting a Hap & Leonard tale. But what I got was part mystery, part horror, and part coming-of-age tale all wrapped up in a beautiful homage to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
The story is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Harry, who spends most of his days choring and exploring with his younger sister, Tom (Thomasina), in East Texas in the early 1930s. The Great Depression looms in the background, while issues of race, oppression, justice, and morality haunt the foreground. Lansdale transports us so fully to his East Texas that it feels like reminiscing about experiences shared.
Marvel Creek wasn’t much of a town really, not that it’s anything now, but back then it was mostly two streets. Main and West. West had a row of houses. Main had the general store, courthouse, post office, doctor’s office, the barbershop my Daddy owned, a drugstore with a nice soda fountain, a newspaper office, and that was about it.
Harry and Tom get themselves lost in the woods after dark and get spooked by what they think is the Goat Man chasing them. The Goat Man is a take on an old Texas urban legend of a half-man, half-goat monster that haunts Old Alton Bridge and the surrounding woods around Denton and Copper Canyon, Texas. The Goat Man of The Bottoms lives near the “Swinging Bridge” and is used mostly as the children’s scapegoat (sorry) for the horrors and harshness of the times.
Harry and Tom eventually lose the Goat Man but encounter the mutilated body of a black woman who has been tied to a tree using barbed wire. Their father, Jacob, is the town’s constable—in addition to being a farmer and town barber—and sets to investigate the next morning. The townsfolk don’t seem to care about the murder because of the victim’s race, but Jacob’s conscience and morality push him to investigate nonetheless. He leads by example and tries to raise Harry and Tom without racial bias.
Listen here. Whites and colored ain’t neither one better or worse than another. There’s just men and women of whatever color, and some of them are worse than others, and some are better. That’s the way to look at that matter. I’m an ignorant man, son, but I know that.
The investigation puts Jacob in a difficult position with the town and its surrounding areas, and he constantly runs afoul of several prominent members who try to warn him away from investigating. That is until a white woman is found murdered in a similar way.
Torn between his duties, his community, his family’s safety, and the tragedies of the murders and their consequences, Jacob struggles to keep it together. And through it all, Harry has to grow up fast and decipher which side he’s on and the kind of man he’s going to become.
To speak more of the plot would be to give away the mystery, but the real gem of The Bottoms is the exploration of the social and racial issues as seen through the eyes of a young boy becoming a young man. Lansdale doesn’t descend into preaching, nor does he awkwardly try to chalk it up as “a different time.” The subtlety of his language and natural flow of his storytelling paint a full picture for the reader—most effectively through the eyes of an impressionable youth—letting each ponder on the complexities of community and race, good and evil, justice and morality. Even as an aged and dying Harry (the true narrator) reflects, he does so without wisdom or certainty, as things in life—especially those as complex as the themes discussed—are never as neatly wrapped as our stories often betray.
Joe Lansdale’s ambitious story tackles serious issues that continue to permeate society not just in East Texas but throughout the world. While it’s impossible to miss the similarities with To Kill a Mockingbird, Lansdale’s story feels fresh and important in its own way. In addition, the way the characters and setting jump off the page make for an extremely enjoyable read. The mystery of the murderer is a little predictable, but then again, the mystery only serves to set up the deeper themes present, so that’s hardly an issue. My only critique is the use of an older Harry reflecting as a narrative device. The attempt feels unnecessary and ultimately falls flat, but its use is so sparse that it hardly detracts from the story.
There are so many reasons to recommend The Bottoms. More than a murder mystery, more than a coming-of-age tale, more than an exploration of oppression and racism—it’s a damn-good story.
Notes from the 2001 Edgar Awards:
- Lansdale’s The Bottoms (Mysterious Press) beat out Kris Nelscott’s A Dangerous Road (Minotaur), Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution (Minotaur), T. Jefferson Parker’s Red Light (Hyperion), and Nancy Pickard’s The Whole Truth (Pocket Books) to take home the Edgar for Best Novel.
- Edward D. Hoch hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- The Best Episode in a TV Series category was dominated by Law & Order, as the original series and Law & Order: SVU accounted for all four of the nominations, with SVU’s “Limitations” by Michael R. Perry taking home the award.
- Stephen Gaghan’s Traffic beat Erin Brockovich and others to take home the Best Motion Picture award.
- David Liss’s Conspiracy of Paper won Best First Novel, ousting Marcia Simpson’s Crow in Stolen Colors, Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, Peter Moore Smith’s Raveling, and Scott Phillips’s The Ice Harvest.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Joe Brosnan returns with a review, fittingly, of Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker, the 2002 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.