James Lee Burke brings back Hackberry

August 3, 2009 11:17:45 AM PDT
As the story begins, Sheriff Hackberry Holland is poking around behind an abandoned Spanish mission, investigating an anonymous report about shots fired. Moments later he radios for help: "We've got a mass murder. The victims are all Asian, some of them hardly more than children."

Burke's fans have met Hackberry before. Back in 1971, he was an ACLU lawyer in one of the author's early novels, "Lay Down My Sword and Shield." Thirty-eight years later, Burke has brought him back as the law in a little Southwest Texas town. Like Burke himself, Hackberry is in his 70s now. He's fled to this remote corner of the country to seek refuge from his past, but the memories that haunt him aren't the sort one can run from.

Hackberry still aches for his dead wife Rie. And he dreams obsessively of "snowy hills south of the Yalu River, and dead Chinese troops in quilted uniforms scattered randomly across the slopes. ... The wounds on the American dead piled in the backs of six-bys looked like roses frozen inside snow." This is a familiar theme in Burke's work. His best characters, including Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux and his buddy Clete Purcell, are similarly stalked by demons.

It's not long before Hackberry figures out the anonymous call was placed by an eyewitness, Pete Flores, an Iraqi War veteran whose emotional and physical scars are fresh and deep. So Hackberry sets out to find Flores before the bad guys can hunt him down and silence him.

Federal agents quickly descend on Hackberry's case, and they aren't much help. For one thing, they're too willing to use Flores as bait and to make deals with the mass murderers to land even bigger fish.

"You know why the right-wing nutcases around here don't trust the government?" a seething Hackberry finally asks one of them.

"No I don't," the agent replies.

"That's the point, sir," Hackberry says. "You don't know. That's the entire point."

"Rain Gods" is Burke's most intricately plotted crime novel yet. The large cast of characters includes a host of crime bosses and contract killers, several of them new to Texas after being driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

First among them is The Preacher, a cruel, self-loathing religious fanatic so malevolent that he seems to be the Devil himself. And as always in a James Lee Burke novel, one of the main characters is the landscape itself, lovingly described in lyrical passages such as this one:

"Throughout the night, he could hear the wind stressing the storm shutters against their hooks and swelling under his house. He saw flashes of lightning in the clouds, the windmill in his south pasture shivering in momentary relief against the darkness, his horses running in the grass, clattering against the railed fence. He heard thunder ripping across the sky like a tin roof being slowly torn asunder by the hands of God. He sat on the side of his bed in his skivvies, his heavy blue-black white-handled revolver clutched in his hand."

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