“Holding Smoke” by Steph Post; Polis Books (336 pages, $26)


“Holding Smoke” opens with two men coming out of darkness into something like light.


A man known as Brother Felton walks out of a swamp, his head full of fevered visions of a great snake and “the endless rasping of its bone-white scales,” into the camp of a trio of wandering teenage petty thieves, who good-heartedly take him in.


Judah Cannon walks out of a cell for the second time in his life, thanks to his fierce girlfriend Ramey’s payoffs to the skeevy local sheriff and state attorney, and right back into his family’s business: crime. Judah has his own visions, of flight with Ramey from his hometown of Silas and his brutal family.


“Holding Smoke,” a pedal-to-the-metal tale of Southern gothic noir, is Steph Post’s fifth novel and the third in her trilogy about Judah, after “Lightwood” and “Walk in the Fire.” She took a break from gritty crime fiction with her 2019 novel, “Miraculum,” a dark fantasy set in a traveling circus.


With “Holding Smoke” she returns to the north central Florida turf of the Cannons, rural territory dotted with hard-luck small towns where the only thing scarier than the drug dealers and the biker gangs is the psychopathic Pentecostal preacher whose church elders, four “ancient, identical men” who speak only in Scripture, do her bidding even when it’s fatal. It’s a setting geographically close to the state’s sparkling beaches and cheery theme parks, but tonally on another planet. (Post is herself a Florida native who grew up not far from that fictional territory and now lives in Brooksville.)


Judah has only been in jail a couple of months, but he finds he has several conflicts to clear up with other criminals, thanks to his belligerent brother Levi. The two keep clashing over how to run their business, even though Levi, as one character notes, “was the sort of man who made a point to talk only to women who had less brain cells than he did. And that meant he didn’t spend too much time talking.”


The Cannons and their crew soon get drawn into a scheme proposed by a mysterious woman named Dinah, who wants their help to kidnap a hugely valuable Thoroughbred stallion from an Ocala ranch. Judah has reservations:


“Judah ran bets and broke down cars and sold untaxed cigarettes. Moved money and merchandise and muscle around. The only two times he’d been involved in an actual robbery … things hadn’t ended so well. Prison time for one, a shootout, dead father and a church on fire for the other.”


But the payoff for the crime — a half-million-dollar ransom from the horse’s owner — sounds to Judah like a ticket out of town, permanently. Ramey is if anything even more dangerous and rage-filled than he is, but she wants a new life, too, and lets herself get talked into the scheme


In the meantime, Felton is planning his approach to that fearsome preacher, Sister Tulah, who also happens to be his aunt. Their familial relationship is even more warped than that of the Cannon clan; Tulah raised Felton to submit to her every whim, and he did so until going missing after a firefight at the end of the last book, Walk in the Fire.


Now Tulah is dealing with some blowback on a scam she’s been running, in the time-honored Florida tradition of selling swampland for development. “You couldn’t sue someone because you were stupid enough to buy land over the internet,” she reasons, but the deal is going sideways because of a whistleblower, and Tulah wants vengeance. She’s going to be in a pretty nasty mood when Felton comes home with a new attitude, and her nasty moods (as Felton knows) can get people killed.


Felton’s and Judah’s story lines seem unrelated, but Post deftly twists them together. Despite their history of conflict, Judah and Sister Tulah have only met once before, and then she was, to him, “the old woman in the background.” She won’t be this time. Post keeps the reader guessing who, if anyone, will come out of this wild ride alive.


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