James Lee Burke: Western Mystery Writer
I Discovered Burke By Chance, But Now I Am Hooked
The reasons that people read books are as varied as the books themselves. Some read out of boredom, some as an escape. Still others look for excitement while their neighbors may read for enlightenment. Me, I read for the escape from the everyday struggle that plunging into someone else’s life may bring. Also, at times I read for comfort. Nothing takes my mind off things and delivers me to a place of contentment as it does when I am engrossed in a good book. My book reading pattern usually revolves around three genres, old time westerns, science fiction, and modern crime/mysteries. Very seldom do I venture from this battle plan and when I do it is usually at someone else’s suggestion, or because of a review I may have encountered in the local fish wrap.
Not long ago while in a grocery store checkout line, the checker, with whom I have become a familiar face, asked me if I was interested in some books that she had in the trunk of her car, books that her husband was trying to get rid of. She figured that because I always had a book in my hand whenever I stopped in at lunch time that maybe I’d be interested in her hubby’s books, so I politely told her that I’d look at them. After picking out three of them I thanked her, tossed them in the cab of my truck and got back to work. Later I looked at them again and tried to remember why it was that I chose them, but only one of them stood out, “In The Moon Of Red Ponies” by author James Lee Burke, and that was because I thought that it was a Western novel, sort of like Loren Estleman, Louis Lamoure or Zane Grey. WRONG!
The supposed western novel turned out to be a modern western crime novel, much to my disappointment, at least for the first 20 pages or so, but 100 pages later I found myself engrossed in the story and captivated by the talent of an author whom I couldn’t remember even hearing about.
AuthorJames Lee Burke (pictured above right), whose very demeanor projects old time western sensibilities, is a writer of great, evocative and descriptive talent combined with an ability to keep the reader captivated with his sometimes complex story lines. I was so taken by this book that I hit the local used book store as WELL as the library in order to find the previous three books in his “Billy Bob Holland” series, “Cimarron Rose”, “Heart Wood”, and “Bitterroot”, which are set in the hill country of Texas and in the low hills of Montana, and now that I have finished them I plan on picking up the first book in his “Dave Robicheaux” series, set in the authors home state of Louisiana.
Here’s a quote from Thrilling Detective that describes the main character, Billy Bob, in these four books:
Writer James Lee Burke, best known for Cajun almost-PI Dave Robicheaux has another crack with Deaf Smith, Texas attorney BILLY BOB HOLLAND. Like his more famous creation, Billy Bob is a troubled gent, haunted by the violence of his ancestors, which he fears may be his true legacy, and his own more immediate troubled past. In fact, the ghost of L.Q. Navarro, the best friend he accidentally killed, continues to pop up and discuss the days events and Billy Bob’s ongoing guilt.
“I had been a street cop, a Texas Ranger, a federal prosecutor, and now I was a small town defense lawyer who didn’t defend drug traffickers, as if that restriction gave a nobility to my practice that other attorneys didn’t possess.”
Aiding and abetting the brooding Billy Bob in his cases is his pal, neighbor and private investigator Temple Carol, who admits to have a spot in her heart for her employer. Like the Robicheaux series, the lyrical descriptive touch of Burke brings the setting, in this case west Texas, to life.
And Burke has brought that same unflinching and unapologetically poetic eye to Missoula, Montana, where he relocates in the third novel, Bitterroot, which saw him moving to west Montana and hung out a shingle for his law practice.
Billy Bob is a complex fellow who, although aware of his ancestors’ violent nature, has come to a not so balanced view of what that violence can do in his own life, often letting the berserker in him wreak vengeance when reason and control no longer make sense. Accompanying Billy Bob in his quieter moments is the ghost of his former partner and friend L.Q.Navarro, who he accidentally killed while on an illegal foray into Mexico to assassinate drug runners. Here’s a description from Billy Bob’s own mouth, selected from two of the books in the series:
From “Bitterroot” (1999)
Years ago, on a nocturnal and unauthorized raid into Coahuila, Mexico I accidentally shot and killed the best friend I ever had.
Today the spirit of my dead friend accompanied me wherever I went. L.Q. Navarro was lean and mustached, with grained skin and lustrous black eyes, and he wore the clothes he had died in, a pinstripe suit and vest with a glowing white shirt, an ash-gray Stetson sweat-stained around the crown, and dusty boots and rowled Mexican spurs that tinkled like tiny bells when he walked.
I saw him at evening, inside mesquite groves traced with fireflies, sitting on top of a stall in a shaft of sunlight on Sunday morning while I bridled my Morgan to go to Mass, or sometimes idly looking over my shoulder while I fished the milky-green river at the back of my property. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he assured me the purple wound high up on his chest was not my fault. That was L.Q. His courage, his stoic acceptance of his fate, his refusal to accuse became the rough-hewn cross and set of nails that waited for me every night in my sleep.
L.Q. and I raided deep into Coahuila and killed drug transporters and set their huts ablaze and watched their tar, reefer, and coke flame like white gas against the sky. In that moment all the moral complexities disappeared.
There was no paperwork to be done, no rage over our inability to reconcile feelings with legality. Sometimes we would find the deed several nights later, still unburied and exposed in the moonlight, their skin glowing like tallow that has melted and cooled again. I had no more feeling about them than I would have about bags of fertilizer.
The trade-off came later, when I fired blindly up an arroyo and watched sparks fly into the darkness and L.Q. Navarro fling his hands at the sky and tumble toward me.
Brave people kept the fire in their belly out of their heads. Reckless and self-indulgent ones let someone else pay their dues.
James Lee Burke and Billy Bob Holland will now be on my watch list for future releases, and here’s hoping that there will be quite a few more to come. But given the author’s age, 73, this is a fragile hope. For more information on James Lee Burke read this interview taken from Powell’s Books back in October of ’06. And for a more complete look at the author read this article written in the Baton Rouge, La. “Advocate” this past April. Hopefully this will whet your appetite for more.
I RATE JAMES LEE BURKE, THE AUTHOR, WITH