S.A. Cosby lost his faith in a single afternoon. Growing up in Mathews County, Va.—a community of 8,000 served by 23 churches—the crime writer attended regular services at a 19th-century Pentecostal congregation founded by his great-grandfather. In the 1980s, when Cosby was 11, his mother—who’d suffered from spinal stenosis for his entire life—took him to a faith-healing tent revival. On the way in, the pair spotted some men smoking cigarettes with their backs to attendees; when the service began, the same men donned crutches and feigned blindness before hitting the stage to be “healed.”

“In that moment, my mother said to me, ‘They’re not healing nobody here. They’re just healing their pockets,’ ” recalls Cosby during a Zoom call from his home in Southeastern Virginia. “And that shaped my own relationship with religion and spirituality.”

Cosby’s latest novel, All the Sinners Bleed (Flatiron, June), weaves a similar crisis of faith into a gruesome murder mystery. Titus Crown, a semi-disgraced former FBI agent, returns home to the fictional Charon County (named for the ferryman who ushers souls across the River Styx) in Virginia to become the region’s first Black sheriff. In the middle of a school day, a friend’s son shoots a beloved history teacher and is subsequently gunned down by Titus’s deputies. While investigating that shooting, Titus uncovers the work of a local serial killer who’s donned a mask and filmed biblically influenced executions of at least seven Black children over several years. As more bodies pile up, Titus—who left the church shortly after his mother’s death—traverses what Flannery O’Connor might call the “Christ-haunted South” in pursuit of the killer.

Sinners wasn’t always going to be so God focused. After his bestselling, blood-splattered 2021 epic Razorblade Tears won acclaim from Barack Obama and the New York Times, Cosby felt compelled to tackle something timely in its follow-up. With the murder of George Floyd fresh on his mind, he got to work on a project titled Black as Sackcloth that zeroed in on police brutality. Before long, though, he found his own feelings on the subject too potent to wrestle into fiction. “Nobody wants a 300-page sermon, and it was shaping up to be that,” Cosby admits.

So for about six months, he wrote nothing. Then a conversation with a colleague about “the four pillars of Southern fiction”—race, class, religion, and sex—shook something loose. He’d tackled them all, in some form, in his previous novels (including 2018’s My Darkest Prayer and 2020’s Blacktop Wasteland), but he’d yet to go deep on religion. “I wanted to talk about the way religion is used as a cudgel and a comfort in the South, how it divides and brings people together,” Cosby says. “And also how it can be used for really, really dark, nefarious purposes.”

Thus, Sackcloth morphed into Sinners, drawing less from the headlines and more from moody modern procedurals with gothic twists, like the HBO series True Detective and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. The novel opens with, and is punctuated by, atmospheric chapters that appear to emerge from the consciousness of the setting itself; after twin epigraphs from Joseph Conrad and the Book of Revelation, the book’s first sentence is, “Charon County was founded in bloodshed and darkness.”

All that Old Testament feeling never completely subsumed Cosby’s initial fascinations, though. “I gave up on the idea of tackling the larger, macro idea of policing in America, but I still wanted to talk about the idea of being an African American police officer,” he emphasizes. As he reformulated the book’s plot, he interviewed friends and acquaintances who’d worked in law enforcement, giving special weight to one who served as the first Black sheriff of a neighboring county.

“My previous books were about outlaws,” Cosby says. “That’s fun, but to a certain extent, it’s also a little easier, because you don’t have to play by the rules. Titus is constrained by the rules of his office, and I really wanted to examine that. How does that inform him as a character? Can he still be a hero? I didn’t want the book to be ‘copaganda’; I wanted it to be a character study of this man who really, really wants to do the right thing.”

Readers who only know Cosby through his hard-edged fiction might be surprised that he’s a self-proclaimed “big softie” (even though, he admits, he’s been in more than one bar fight). A giddy, gregarious conversationalist, he’s prone to smiling so wide his eyes almost disappear. His bookshelves are full of Cormac McCarthy, yes, but also Samuel Beckett and cozy mysteries, and he’s a big fan of French new wave films. “It always cracks me up when I talk about stuff like that,” Cosby says with a laugh. “The look I get from people is like, ‘Oh, gosh, we thought you just spent all your days chopping up bad guys in woodchippers.’ ”

That disarming charm helped Cosby land his agent, HG Literary’s Josh Getzler. After 63 rejections for his first novel (yes, that’s a precise figure: he counted the emails), Cosby parted ways with the agent who was representing him and sank into a rut. Urged by his wife to attend the 2018 Bouchercon mystery convention in St. Petersburg, Fla., he wound up on a panel there after someone else canceled at the last minute. In the q&a portion, a white woman chided the panelists for being “too hard on white people,” defending the “manners and etiquette” of the antebellum period.

“Everybody in the room kind of gasped, and the panelists looked at each other to see who was going to say anything,” recalls Getzler, who was in the audience. “[Cosby] sort of nodded his head and smiled, and in the space of a minute, took the woman to task in a manner that was not rude and nasty in the way that she had been, but really spoke to the facility with language and respect for humanity that he has.”

After the panel wrapped, Getzler chased Cosby down a hotel corridor. A few weeks later, Getzler was representing him.

Cosby’s life has changed considerably since he was a young Holy Roller in rural Virginia attending tent revivals with his mother. He’s teamed up with Questlove to pen a middle grade time-travel series; each of his adult novels has been optioned for film. “It’s pretty heady stuff, and we’re still trying to get him to enhance his Wi-Fi,” Getzler jokes.

What’s stayed steady, though, is Cosby’s identification with the downtrodden. Even as he has abandoned what he calls “big-C Church” he’s found an unexpected spiritual outlet in crime fiction. “I think there’s no better genre to talk about the human condition,” he says, calling it “the gospel of the dispossessed.” He adds, “Not everybody is going to be a professor from the Upper West Side, like a character in a Philip Roth book, or a minister from the Midwest, like in Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. But I think everybody’s felt desperate, and everybody’s felt that their back is against the wall.”

It calls to mind a passage from early on in Sinners: “Twenty years removed from the last time he willingly attended a church service, and he still found himself using the jargon of the devout,” Cosby writes of Titus. “It never left you, not completely. The cadence, the syncopation, the King James syntax. It was all there waiting to reemerge like seventeen-year cicadas.”