If there were a massive edition of the collected works of James Lee Burke (and the growing popularity of Kindle may very well make this possible), a good title for it might be At the Intersection of Beauty and Violence: The Collected Crime Novels of James Lee Burke. (Simon & Schuster can thank me later.)
It's been said by many reviewers (including myself) that the physical setting of a James Lee Burke novel—whether it be Texas, Montana or New Orleans—is important, second only to the crime that provides the narrative crux. This is true, sort of. Whether they be detective or criminal, Burke's characters are as affected by their landscape as they are by the events unfolding in it. These events, though, consistently suggest that depravity and beauty go together. Therefore, it might be more accurate to say it's the less tangible setting—that place where extreme violence intersects with grace—that defines the real "sense of place" in a Burke novel.
In his latest, Rain Gods, Burke resurrects Hackberry Holland, a small town Texas sheriff who has appeared in earlier works as the cousin of Billy Bob Holland, an attorney in Lolo. Hackberry is a Korean War vet who's haunted by the time he spent in a POW camp and, more recently, the memory of his deceased wife. A former attorney turned policeman, Hackberry comes face to face with the murder of nine women from Thailand, all of them young, all of them illegal aliens, who were machine-gunned to death and then buried in a shallow grave behind a church. "She was thin-boned, a toy person," writes Burke in the novel's opening pages, "her black blouse a receptacle for heat and totally inappropriate for the climate. [Hackberry] guessed she was not over seventeen and that she had been alive when the dirt was pushed on top of her. She was also Asian, not Hispanic as he had expected."
The gruesome murders unfold into a multi-threaded narrative that includes a complex cast of characters. After making an anonymous phone call to the police, Pete Flores, a young Iraq War vet and unwilling participant at the scene of the crime, takes off with his girlfriend, Vicki. The two have reason to run: Hugo Cistranos, the crime boss who paid Pete $300 "to drive a truck to San Antone" (the soon-to-be victims were in the back of that truck) is after them, as is Nick Dolan, a well-meaning yet cowardly strip club owner. Most dangerous of all is Preacher Jack Collins, a vigilante who believes he's "on the other side of God." Preacher becomes even more dogged in his pursuit after Vicki fires a bullet into his foot, an act that both annoys and arouses him.
Enigmatic and cold-blooded, Preacher is one of the best villains ever to come out of a Burke novel. Articulate and religious, Preacher is not opposed to sharing his moral insight with friends, enemies and victims (and sometimes those categories are blurred), nor is he opposed to correcting their grammar. Cold-blooded and guilty of grisly acts of cruelty, Preacher is, nonetheless, capable of surprising and seemingly (at least to his partners) inexplicable acts of mercy. It was Flannery O'Connor, one of Burke's literary predecessors who also hailed from the South (Burke is originally from Texas), who said that violence in fiction is "strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them for their moment of grace." Throughout Rain Gods, Preacher Jack Collins—not unlike a modern-day equivalent to O'Connor's most well-known (and well-loved) villain, The Misfit—seems to be perpetually anticipating his own moment of grace.
While Hackberry Holland and his chief deputy, Pam Tibbs (whose advances Hackberry finds harder and harder to resist) follow in the trail of Pete and Vicki and all their enemies, they're forced to work with the FBI's Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose unpredictable agent comes with his own haunted past. As Hackberry gets closer to solving the gruesome murder of the nine Thai women, the separate stories of each character become more and more vivid. Though it's the murder that ties all the characters to the novel, it's their separate stories that make their motives all the more understandable—and makes the novel, ultimately, all the more thrilling.
Burke's crime novels almost always follow a similar pattern: the shock of sudden violence (and, despite the competition on television and in film, the violent acts in Burke's novels still do shock) followed by a pursuit to a conclusion. That pursuit is punctuated, as illustrated in Burke's descriptions of his characters and in their dialogue, by a heartbreaking empathy. Burke's characters are never perfect, are often haunted by demons both real and imagined, and are always part of a vivid landscape painted by a master storyteller.
James Lee Burke reads from Rain Gods at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 14, at 7 PM. Free.