Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Rain Gods" by James Lee Burke

I don't read much fiction; outside of classical fiction, which always has a deeper meaning than the story being told on the surface. Like "Moby Dick", classical fiction can be read on several different levels. Most contemporary fiction lacks that depth. So, I generally confine myself to non-fiction. But when James Lee Burke writes fiction it is always a current and accurate assessment of what is really going on in the world. He just changes the names.

If you have never read any of Mr. Burkes previous novels, this one is a good place to begin.To establish his bona-fides, think of Alec Baldwind with Teri Hatcher and Mary Stuart Masterston in "Heavens's Prisoners", the book and film which have both been reviewed here. Writing with an almost lyrical cadence, and with an insight into the personal demons that dog us all, Mr. Burke creates characters who are so vividly real they actually feel menacing. In "Rain Gods", the author draws you into the seamy world of drug smuggling and the forced sex trade. Nothing is what it seems and all real motives are obscurred.

His previous works have largely concentrated on New Orleans and former Detective Dave Robicheaux, his struggles with alcholol, women and his own inner demons. In this book he takes on the new character of Texas Lawman Hackberry Holland, who, along with Deputy Pam Tibbs, find themselves in the middle of a Russian syndicate running Chinese prostitutes across the border while smuggling heroin in their stomachs. When the ballons in their bodies begin to burst the girls are all systematically killed by a man known as the Preacher.

All of the characters in this book will be recognizable to you if you have spent any time at all on the seamier side of things. And if not, you will be fascinated by what really goes on out there. From the evil doings of the Preacher, to the innocence of Vikki and her ne'er do well boyfriend Pete, a confused and wounded Iraqi veteran, these characters are as real as you can write them. His Deputy, Pam, is as sensitive as she is tough when it comes to protecting the Sheriff. Mr. Burke is a potent and skillfull writer with a talent for creating characters that cannot be dismissed or ignored.

With one witness to the crime, and a whole lot of people double crossing one another, this book will keep you reading, and guessing, right up until the end. One of the most engaging qualities of Mr. Burkes' writing is his deep insights into the human soul. Take this paragraph, all by itself, out of context from the book;

"He had learned long ago as a Navy Corpsmen that Morpheus did not bestow his gifts easily or cheaply. The sleep that most people yearned for rarely came this side of the grave, except perhaps to the very innocent or to those willing to mortgage tomorrow for tonight. Tying off a vein, watching the blood rise inside a hypodermic needle, staining a mint-bruised mug of crushed ice with four fingers of Jack Daniel's were all guaranteed to work. But the cost meant taking up residence in a county no reasonable person ever wanted to enter."

You can't write like without having been there. This book reads like a film. It's simply that fluid. And along the way Mr. Burke always manages to drop in some history and psychology along with a mind bending adventure that is often very close to the stories behind today's headlines. This is another triumph for James Lee Burke and the reader.

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