MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2016
The Jealous Kind, by James Lee Burke
I have long been one of James Lee Burke’s staunchest fans; consequently it comes as a big shock to the system to read his latest book and find it lacking in a lot of the attributes that make him so hugely popular worldwide with enormous numbers of thriller readers.
The above title is classed as a Hackberry Holland novel, Burke’s doughty Texan sheriff and his Texas Ranger ancestor of the same name (see previous reviews below) but its 1952 setting has characters who bear only a fleeting connection to the first Hackberry; his grandson Aaron Holland Broussard is the main protagonist here but there is very little reference to his forebears.
And that’s a shame, for ‘House of the Rising Sun’, the first Hackberry’s post World War One adventures was almost unsurpassable in plot, characterisation, imagery and suspense; it is undeniably a hard act to follow, but Mr Burke’s fans never doubt that he will always pull another top quality story effortlessly from his cowboy hat.
Not this time. Aaron Holland Broussard is seventeen years old and appears to have a death wish: on a visit to a Galveston drive-in he intervenes in an argument between ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Houston’, Valerie Epstein (also seventeen) and her current boyfriend Grady Harrelson. He sets in motion events and consequences which he never intended, for Grady’s father is enormously rich and has Mob connections. Grady does not like to be humiliated by Aaron’s death-wish smart mouth in front of his hangers-on and Valerie, and a feud of mammoth proportions is born when Valerie publicly tells him to get lost and elects to go home alone. To make matters worse, a romance, classic first love, trembles into life between Aaron and Valerie, oblivious of the dangers that threaten its growing strength; they are so attuned to each other that they can’t imagine a solo life in the future. Nothing will part them – not even threats and attacks from a murderous Mafia chieftain and his brain-damaged son: normal people would quail at the mere thought of attention from the Mafia, but Aaron is impervious to such danger, for he has ‘spells’ which turn him into a berserker, dispensing terrible, near-fatal beatings to those who light his fuse.
Needless to say, even more threats are made, involving his parents and household pets: he has to mount a counter-attack! Fair enough, but let us remember that he is just a high school student; he hasn’t even been drafted to Korea yet. What does he know? Well, a lot more than your average seventeen year old, the feasibility of which worries me more than a little, especially when he and Valerie beard the Mafia chieftain and his overweight minions in their den, have a huge slanging match with them – then walk away, still breathing.
Nevertheless, Mr Burke engineers a satisfying if predictable climax; the baddies are all eliminated with deaths deserving of their crimes; then he informs us of each character’s fate in an Epilogue so perfunctory that they are cut off at the knees, appearing to bore him so much that their future is told in paragraphs.
That said, Mr Burke still pushes his story along at a satisfying pace; the reader still wants to find out What Happens Next, but this time there are too many side-tracks and dead-ends in the plot, too many characters half-developed then dispensed with, to rate ‘The Jealous Kind’ more than FOUR STARS.
House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke
I first doffed my hat to Mr Burke’s literary excellence when I read ‘Feast Day of Fools’ (see 2012 review below); now he delights us yet again with another rip-roaring tale of Hackberry Holland, Texas Lawman and singular hero of impossible situations, but this story travels back in time to the early years of the 20th century and the War to End All Wars: Mr Burke writes of Hackberry Holland’s grandfather of the same name, a man with more demons than a fellow rightly needs, but (when he’s not killing no-good varmints and giving lesser baddies a good whuppin’) he is a man of honour, according to his own reasoning; a champion of the weaker sex and those of colour – until he goes on a bender: Marshal Holland and booze should never mix, for when they do all principles are forgotten and he becomes no better than those he despises.
The action begins in 1916 when Hackberry travels to Mexico in search of
His son Ishmael, an Army officer who leads a troop of coloured soldiers. Hackberry has let down his son and the boy’s mother, Ruby Dansen in such a way that he feels he will never be able to make amends, but he has to make the attempt even if he is shunned for his efforts. He doesn’t find his son, but finds trouble, lots of it; in fact so much that he has to kill a Mexican General, plus several soldiers who are visiting a brothel run by a mysterious and beautiful (naturally) woman called Beatrice DeMolay. The Madam has helped his son escape; now Hackberry is happily indebted to her, but makes a formidable enemy when he blows up a hearse (yes, truly) packed with weaponry owned by an Austrian gunrunner called Arnold Beckman – but not before he searches the hearse and finds a mysterious artefact hidden within it.
Arnold wants his artefact back and is seriously ticked off about the loss of the weaponry; he is also a sadist and murderer who, if he ever got his homicidal hands on any member of the Holland family would subject them to a long and torturous death. In the hands of any other writer, Arnold would be an arch villain from a fruity Victorian melodrama, but Mr Burke invests him with a chilling liveliness that makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck, and dialogue so scintillating that it is a pleasure to read what Arnold is going to say next.
And Arnold Beckman is not the only smiling monster in Mr Burke’s arsenal of Hackberry’s enemies: Maggie Bassett, prostitute and sometime lover of Butch Cassidy, famed gunslinger of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang has a very big bone to pick with Marshal Holland. On one occasion when Hackberry was Under the Influence, she swears they married – which may have happened, but Maggie was an inconstant wife and left him pretty quickly – until he wanted a divorce so that he could marry Ruby Dansen, the mother of his child. (Are you still with me? There’s no such thing as a simple plot here.)
In short, Hackberry’s problems are legion. Absolutely EVERYONE wants him dead, except the reader, and what a pleasure it is to see how Mr Burke manages to extricate Our Hero time and time again from nostril-deep ordure, each close call accompanied by unique humour provided by colourful minor characters, all of whom save Hackberry’s bacon more than once.
And once again, Mr Burke writes achingly beautiful prose to describe the country he loves; he evokes superbly a time long gone but his peerless imagery enables the reader to be there, amongst the poverty and beauty and cruelty of a lawless land. This is the thinking man’s Western. FIVE STARS
Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke
So. I have to ask myself the question: what rock have I been hiding under all these years that I could remain uninterested in a superlative writer who has now completed thirty thrillers? Because I thought he was probably the same as all the other formulaic writers, that’s why. Well, shame on me.
James Lee Burke’s literary reputation is so secure that he hardly needs an endorsement from a Library blog in New Zealand, but that won’t stop me from singing his praises all the same. I’m just vexed at myself for not reading his books sooner. Fortunately, ‘Feast Day of Fools’ despite being the latest in a series of stories about Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland (yep, that’s truly his name), is easily read as a stand-alone novel, for Mr Burke’s skill is such that he can bring the first-time reader (me!) up to speed with action from previous books, introducing it so seamlessly that I never felt mad as I usually do, for approaching the series from the wrong end.
Sheriff Holland is an old man now, nursing much sorrow and many regrets, but still functioning superbly as the guardian of the law in a small West Texas town close to the Mexican border. He has a loyal staff consisting of deputies Pam Tibbs, whose devotion is a thin disguise for the great love she feels for him; and R.C. Givens, whose frail-looking physique belies his resourcefulness and intelligence - and let us not forget switchboard operator Maydeen Stolz, whose vulgarity offends the Sheriff daily.
Crime in the area is usually connected with the Wetbacks, those hapless Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande, then pay ‘Coyotes’, unscrupulous guides, to help them find menial work in Texas. They are illegal aliens, willing to do anything to make a living, for compared to their miserable lives in Mexico the United States is still the Promised Land. However, when the remains of a tortured man are found by a local alcoholic and reported to the sheriff, a chain of events is started that leads not just to wets and coyotes, but to defence contractors and organised crime, an ex-C.I.A operative and the shadowy pursuers of them all, the F.B.I.
Oh, everyone gets a mention in Mr Burke’s complicated plot and there are baddies of truly Olympian proportions, but Hackberry’s true nemesis from previous encounters is Preacher Jack Collins, a messianic, scripture-quoting killer whose favourite weapon is a machine gun. Preacher Jack is a one-stop-shop of high intelligence, hatred, malice and forward planning, and he and the sheriff have unfinished business to conduct: every now and then Jack rings Hackberry to remind him, to keep him on the back foot – and these little exchanges are gems. Mr Burke writes scintillating, witty dialogue, so good that despite the fact that some of the characters reach caricature proportions, they are continually redeemed by their folksy, down to earth humour and logic.
Sadly, logic is jettisoned in the last chapter of this otherwise fine story: after a gun battle that should have left no-one alive, Hackberry and his allies march off into the desert and imminent rescue, even though they are all leaking gallons of blood and shouldn’t be able to walk a single step. That’s stretching the reader’s credulity to snapping point!
But let us not forget Mr Burke’s wonderful descriptions of the natural world around him: he populates his stark and beautiful landscapes with roiling purple clouds, fiery sunsets and the vastness of desert spaces. Until I read this book I didn’t know a butte from a banana or a mesa from my elbow but I’m happy to say that I NOW HAVE THE PICTURE, thanks to Mr. Burke’s marvellous imagery. He has the singular ability to make the reader examine crime in all its guises, too - not just the who-done-it variety, but the greater crimes that start wars, the terrible crimes that wars unleash, and the criminals who set it all in motion. FIVE STARS
The Brotherhood of the Wheel, by R. S. Belcher
Naturally, the seasoned thriller reader knows there has to be a hitch, and that is the fact that Jimmie is a member of The Brethren, a powerful modern version of the Knights Templar, founded in the twelfth century to protect and defend travellers and merchants on the roads of the Holy Land. The same rings true in the 21st century – Jimmy and his fellow Brethren (truckers, bikers, police, cab-drivers, state troopers et al) are sworn to uphold the same traditions a thousand years later. The highways and byways are still as dangerous as ever for the innocent, in fact more so: there has been an upsurge in children and teenagers reported missing, all last seen, then disappearing completely near main roads and highways.
Events take a supernatural turn when Jimmie stops to pick up a young girl hitchhiking on the highway in the dead of night: she says ‘she just wants to get home’, and even though her home is nowhere near his destination he knows he must take her there. It is also very clear to him that she is already dead. Her ghostly appearance is a request for him to investigate all the disappearances, and to stop and vanquish the evil creature behind these awful crimes.
How can he refuse? In florid and torrid prose, Mr Belcher sets the opening scenes in sometimes tedious detail (do we have to know what everyone is wearing right down to their shoelaces?), and his vast knowledge of country music is illustrated in the choice of music and artist in diners, restaurants and trucker’s cabs every few pages. Okay. I get the picture, BUT! When all the preliminaries have finally been dispensed with, Mr Belcher has assembled a courageous and doughty band of Road Knights, beginning with Heck Sinclair, taken on as jimmie’s Squire, a biker and marine burn-out with a short fuse and powers of which he is only half-aware (and very afraid of!); Lovina Marcou, a Louisiana State Police investigator on her last warning for investigating child disappearances in a less than procedural manner; and Dr. Max Leher, called in as backup from another secret branch of the Knights Templar: together they are a formidable and frightening team, the only ones capable of wiping out the gathering evil that threatens modern civilisation.
And while the reader has a ‘yeah, right!’ moment at least once every chapter, Mr Belcher charms and cajoles us all into finishing this tall tale with his great dialogue (some of it laugh-out-loud funny), even better minor characters (Elvis makes an appearance, young and beautiful again and ready to access his Hellish contacts for Jimmie), and strong plotting obviously leading to a sequel – and I’ll be waiting: ‘The Brotherhood of the Wheel’ and its members are heaps of scary fun! FOUR STARS, C’mon?