In Holmes County, Florida, the number one law is “mind your own business”. Tyler Keith’s debut novel, The Mark of Cain, revolves around Ronnie Harrison who was just released from prison in Pensacola after six years. Harrison only wants to reconnect with his daughter, granddaughter and begin a new life. Unfortunately, returning to his hometown in Holmes County might just send him back to prison, or worse.

Tyler Keith–best known as a songwriter/guitarist in his bands the Apostles, the Preacher’s Kids, Teardrop City and the Neckbones–grew up in Florida’s panhandle and now lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Keith’s band Teardrop City’s song “Sisyphus Blues” recently appeared on the Peacock Network premier episode of Poker Face. On March 3, Tyler Keith and the Apostles’ new record Hell To Pay will be released on Black Wyatt Records.

Keith earned a degree in English at the University of Mississippi where he studied under Barry Hannah. Keith later earned a master’s degree in Southern Studies and received a MFA in Documentary Expression. In 2013, Keith wrote and performed in a musical called “The Outlaw Biker”. The Mark of Cain has been nominated for Best Fiction in the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters 2023 Awards.

 I met Tyler Keith in January 2023 at Sundog Books during the 30A Songwriters Festival in Seaside, Florida–his neck of the woods. We were both shilling our books. I read The Mark of Cain two days later. 

Last Sunday, Keith informed me how long he’d been working on the book: “I started writing it in 2011. Around 2015, I finished the draft of it, which was about 43,000 words. I was friends with the writer Ace Atkins. He was a big fan of my bands. He was kind enough to read it. He told me I needed to expand it and get it to around 70,000 words. I hadn’t really gone into Holmes County much. It was more about Camp Eden. I spent another year and a half expanding it. By the time I finished it around 2018, it was about 69,000 words. Then I started sending it out…”

The family business of meth, marijuana and moonshine in The Mark of Cain threatens Ronnie Harrison’s intent to remain on the straight and narrow. Family members know Harrison is out of prison, and they want him back in their dangerous graces. The trouble begins less than a week after Harrison is released from prison to a corrupt halfway house called Camp Eden near Gulf Breeze, Florida.

Descriptions of the Florida panhandle prove cinematic as Harrison travels highways passing by towns such as Bonifay, Vortex Springs and Ponce de Leon with a country radio station providing the soundtrack for his struggles with brutal choices he cannot escape. In the Prologue, a hazardous struggle for the soul becomes apparent regarding the cultural backdrop wherein Harrison must operate:

“Two options left: Dirt-farming Christian with no sense of humor, or dangerous outlaw, not very funny either. Some families have both, a father from one side and a mother from the other. Then the offspring is ripped apart by competing tendencies. That could be me. Third option: you leave. But you always take that place with you. And Holmes County is always waiting for you to come back. Somebody there can put you to work…doing something wrong.”

Memorable characters lace this book, such as the jukebox queen Darleen, Reverend Ricky Wilkins, “Sarge” Speed, Davis, Beasley, Travis Campbell and the murderous Uncle Albert. You can almost smell the fried fish, beer, gasoline and reefer in certain chapters. Or see the deadly powder on the edge of a knife blade just as a hard boiled killer shoves it under your nose.

Harrison endures heart-rending moments throughout The Mark of Cain and eventually, finds himself in a deadly situation where in Holmes County one is lucky to get out alive. 

A high-octane read.