Written by S. A. Cosby and published in 2023, All the Sinners Bleed is a thriller and Southern crime novel that focuses on Titus Crown, the first Black sheriff in his hometown of Charon County, Virginia, to which he has recently returned to care for his father. Hoping to change the criminal justice system for the better, Titus embraces his job to serve and protect the community. However, the past (both personal and historical) comes back to haunt Titus as he deals with a school shooting, a serial killer who targets Black children, cult-like churches featuring poisonous snakes, and violent neo-Confederate groups. Using his past training from the FBI and navigating through institutionalized racism, Titus works to find answers to crimes without losing himself.
This guide refers to the hardcover edition published by Flatiron Books in 2023.
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Content Warning: All the Sinners Bleed and this guide describe and discuss violence, torture, assault, murder, racism, hate crimes, and sexual abuse.
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Charon County, Virginia, is haunted by its violent past, despite what residents believe. Titus Crown, the first local Black sheriff, knows that it is only a matter of time until the violence returns. Titus grew up in Charon County but moved away to complete college and to pursue a career with the FBI. After resigning from the FBI due to unexplained circumstances about which he feels guilty, he returns to Charon County to care for his father. Titus hopes to reform the criminal justice system from the inside out, but at the novel’s opening, his biggest task is monitoring the events surrounding the upcoming neo-Confederate parade led by Ricky Sours. Titus must provide crowd control for the event, and he feels like he is not really changing the system after all.
One day, a school shooting shocks the small-town community, and Titus discovers that a teacher named Jeff Spearman has been shot, but nobody else has been hurt. Everyone evacuates the school, and Titus and other police officers are preparing to enter the school when the shooter comes out, still holding a gun. The shooter is Latrell Macdonald, a young Black man who is the son of Titus’s old high school friend Calvin. Titus orders Latrell to drop his gun, but Latrell refuses, then rushes toward the officers. Two white officers, Tom and Roger, shoot and kill Latrell. While he knows that Latrell was experiencing issues with mental health, Titus also suspects that Latrell had a specific reason for targeting and killing Mr. Spearman.
In the aftermath, a local Black preacher and social justice advocate named Jamal Addison, along with some of his congregants, express their outrage over Latrell’s death. However, most people in the community are thankful that the police shot Latrell. Titus finds this attitude to be reprehensible, especially after he looks through Spearman’s phone and discovers that he was torturing, sexually abusing, and murdering Black children with another man in a wolf mask. Latrell was also in the pictures but seemed to be fulfilling the role of “bait” to lure the children and teenagers to the two adult white men. From the pictures, Titus cannot identify the third man because of the mask. Titus and other police search Spearman’s house and find additional photo and video evidence of his crimes, along with a painting that leads them to a location where they discover seven bodies of murdered Black children buried beneath a willow tree. The number of bodies matches the number of deaths that Titus saw recorded in Spearman’s videos. Titus’s girlfriend, Darlene, is terrified when these crimes come to light.
The medical examiner, Dr. Kim, notices that the bodies have odd-sounding and ostensibly religious phrases carved into them, but Titus realizes that they are not real Bible verses but made-up ones. One such fake verse has also appeared on six different church signs in the county, so Titus starts investigating those churches. There are 23 churches in the county, and Titus is one of the few non-religious people in the area.
As Titus’s investigation continues, one day he learns that his brother Marquis has gotten into a fight with some men at a bar owned by a drug dealer named Jasper. Marquis tells Titus that one of his deputies is taking bribes from Jasper. Titus gets an anonymous call from a man who helped another man install a cellar-type structure that sported a variety of unsettling angel-themed decorations. This structure resembles the place featured in Spearman’s murder videos, so Titus is interested, but the anonymous caller fears getting into trouble and hangs up before Titus can obtain further information. Next, Titus investigates Holy Rock of the Redeemer, a cult-like church run by Elias Hillington, which includes snake tricks as part of the sermons. He notices that Elias’s rhetoric sounds suspiciously similar to the phrases that the killer wrote on the bodies.
A man named Paul Garnett finds a dead body with the face removed. It is later identified as the body of Cole Marshall, who worked at the fish house with Latrell. Scott Cunningham, the town’s chairman of the board, pressures Titus to solve the murders more quickly, but all of the interactions between him and Titus are antagonistic at best. Meanwhile, Dr. Kim starts identifying the children and learns that they belong to missing-persons cases of children from different states, all of whom went missing within the last several years. A man named Darnell Posey delivers a box containing the remains of Cole Marshall’s face to the police station, but he claims he didn’t know what was inside and only delivered it because he got paid by an anonymous person to do so. Darnell was friends with Latrell, but he doesn’t know anything about Latrell’s activities with Spearman; however, Titus learns that Spearman did try to molest Darnell during his high school years. Darnell didn’t tell anyone at the time because he didn’t think his story would be taken seriously.
Titus returns to Elias’s church, but Elias isn’t there; instead, he meets a woman named Griselda Barry who tells him about Elias’s adopted son, whom he raised with his wife, Mare-Beth, along with several biological children. Griselda states that Elias abused the adopted boy and treated him differently because he was of both white and Black heritage. Griselda believes that the boy murdered Elias’s brother, Henry, who was also abusive toward him. She also believes that the adopted boy could be the culprit behind these more recent murders, especially given his internalized racism and religious fanaticism. The next day, Titus’s ex-girlfriend Kellie interviews him for her true-crime podcast, and the tone of their exchange suggests that he still has feelings for her.
Titus discovers that Tom was the crooked police officer accepting bribes from Jasper, and fires him. The killer calls Titus to threaten his “flock,” and nails a dead lamb to the door of his house. A man named Preston Jeffries discovers another dead body that has been carved with bizarre religious imagery and words; the victim is identified as Elias Hillington. This event solidifies Titus’s suspicion that the adopted child raised by Elias is likely the third killer. Elias and his wife named the child Gabriel, but he is no longer going by that name, and Titus can’t think of a local man who matches Gabriel’s age and physical description. He considers the possibility that Gabriel might be passing as white.
Dr. Kim learns that the killer shares DNA with Scott Cunningham, and is the son of Scott’s mother, Polly Anne. Titus interviews Polly Anne and learns that her husband was gay and died young, at which point she became involved with a boyfriend who was Black and became pregnant. The Cunninghams bullied her into giving the child up for adoption to the Hillingtons, who pretended that he was their own biological child. Polly Anne now regrets this decision and feels guilty because the Hillingtons abused the child and turned him into a monster. At this point, the narrative finally reveals that Titus resigned early from the FBI because he killed a man whom he was supposed to arrest. Titus goes to listen to Kellie’s podcast interview of him and finds the body of Kellie’s sound technician, then surprises the third masked killer in the act of trying to kill Kellie. Titus saves her, but the killer gets away. Darlene breaks up with Titus and moves to a different state.
When the neo-Confederates have their parade, Jamal’s congregation leads a counter-protest. A man named Denver Carlyle drives a car into the picket line to run people over and kills at least one person. At this point, Titus puts an end to the event. In all the chaos, Latrell’s younger brother Lavon goes missing, presumably captured by the killer. Titus learns that Dr. Kim has found a T-shaped object inside the body of one child, and Titus recognizes this as the truck lock from the same Cunningham flag-factory truck that Denver drove through the crowd. He gets the truck logs and discovers that on one particular day, Denver didn’t drive his usual truck, and Royce Lazare drove it instead. This suggests that Royce is the killer and shoved the lock down one child’s throat.
Titus goes to Royce’s house, and Tom is waiting for him there although he’s been fired. Titus and Tom enter, and Royce shoots and kills Tom. After struggling with Royce and sustaining a serious head wound, Titus is unable to prevent Royce from fleeing the house. Titus passes out from a wound in his head but comes to after hearing his deceased mother’s voice encouraging him. He goes outside and finds a fake azalea bush hiding the entrance to an underground structure sporting creepy angel décor. Royce is about to kill Lavon, but Lavon stabs him, and Titus kills Royce. After the conclusion of the case, Titus resigns as sheriff and moves to Louisiana to become a college professor. Although being the sheriff didn’t allow him to change the system, he hopes that teaching will.
By S. A. Cosby