by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
(This column first appeared in the xx, 2002 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
In Bitterroot, James Lee Burke turns our attention from his bayou detective, Dave Robicheaux, to former Texas Ranger and now lawyer, Billy Bob Holland. In this novel Billy Bob is on vacation visiting his friend, Doc Voss in the Flathead country of eastern Montana.
The setting is different, the hero is different, but the story-telling is the same. And that is fine with me. His novels may be thrillers but Burke's prose is taut, full of good humor, sometimes sentimental, but often even -- as the publisher claims -- lyrical.
Just as you can learn much from Shakespeare's scene-closing couplets, you bask in Burke's section-ending paragraphs. Here is one: "'I don't think you're chivalric, Billy Bob. You're just real dumb sometimes,' she said. When she looked at me the milky green color of her eyes had darkened but not with anger. The depth of injury in them, like a stone bruise down in the soul, made me swallow with shame."
And here is a more violent example: "He had almost formed the sentence that would contain all those thoughts when the pistol barrel exploded with light and sound and the copper-jacketed round punched a neat hole through the right lens of his glasses and blew a single spurt of blood out the back of his head onto the grass."
He can take you deep into the minds of his characters in a short passage. Here, for example, he makes us appreciate a mother who cannot escape from the image of her murdered child: "On the way out of the den I saw on top of a bookcase a framed photograph of a little boy. He wore a cowboy hat and sat atop a Shetland pony. The pony was eating out of a bucket, and the little boy's legs were too short to reach the stirrups. The boy was holding on to the pommel as though he were frightened by the distance to the ground."
He can pack great amounts of information into a few humor-laden paragraphs. For example, here is his assistant confronting the local sheriff. It will take you deep into the novel's central action.
"'Let me talk to him alone,' she said.
"'Woman's touch, that sort of thing.'
"'You think I already tracked pig flop on the rug?'
"'You? Not a chance.'
"She left his door partly open, and I could see inside and hear them talking. I soon had the feeling the sheriff wished he had gone to lunch early.
"'How does anybody lose a bag full of bloody and semen‑stained sheets and clothing? You drop it off at the Goodwill by mistake?' she said.
"'We think the night janitor picked up the bag and threw it in the incinerator,' the sheriff said.
"'So then you conclude there's no physical evidence to prove Ellison stole Doc's knife. Which allows you to arrest Doc for Ellison's murder. What kind of brain‑twisted logic is that?'
"'You pulled in two other suspects for Maisey's rape. Their fingerprints were at the crime scene. But you didn't charge them.'
"'One guy was a part‑time carpenter. He worked on that house before Dr. Voss bought it. The other man was at a party there. A couple of witnesses back up his story.'
'You know they did it.'
"'Help me prove that and I'll lock them up. Look, you're mad because your friend is not easy to defend. The knife puts him inside Ellison's cabin. He stopped at a filling station a mile down the road and filled his tank with gas a half hour before the fire started. He had motivation and no alibi. When we picked him up and told him somebody had burned Ellison to death, he said, 'I should give a shit?' You were a police officer. Who would you have in custody?'
"'I'd start with Wyatt Dixon. Why do you allow a psychopath like that in your town, anyway?'
"'Say again?' he said.
"'Back home our sheriff is a one‑lung cretin who couldn't go to the bathroom without a diagram. But he'd have Wyatt Dixon pepper-Maced and in waist chains five minutes after he hit town.'
"'Yeah, I heard about the way you do things down there. We sent a bunch of our convicts from Deer Lodge to one of your rental prisons. We're still paying off the lawsuits. Now, look, Missy‑'
"'Say that again?'
"'Sorry. I mean Ms. Carrol. You and Mr. Holland aren't married, are you? You two seem to make a fine match,' the sheriff said.
"'I'll be back later.'
"'Oh I know. Yes, ma'am, I surely know,' he said, two fingers pressed against one eyebrow."
Burke retrieves in this novel a technique he used with excellent effect in his earlier novel, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. Billy Bob has accidentally killed his partner in a Mexican shoot-out and, when he is alone he is often confronted with his partner's ghost. Here is one of those scenes:
"I walked through the cottonwoods and aspens on the riverbank. The river was in shadow under the canopy, but the sun had risen above the ridge and the boulders in the center of the current were steaming in the light. I saw L.Q. Navarro squatting down on his haunches in the shallows, scraping a hellgrammite off the bottom of a rock with the blade of his pocketknife. The bottoms of his suit pants were dark with water, his teeth white with his grin. He threaded the hellgrammite onto a hook that hung from a fishing pole carved out of a willow branch.
"'The last couple of days been hard on your pride?'
"'You might say that.'
"'Next time that ATF agent smarts off, you bust his jaw. I never could abide them federal types.'
"'What am I going to do with Cleo Lonnigan?'
"'Get out of town?'
"'That's not funny.'
"'It wasn't meant to be.'
"Then his attention wandered, as it often did when I imposed all my daily concerns upon him. His hellgrammite had slipped off the hook in the current, and he waded deeper into the water, into the shade, and lifted up a heavy rock from the bed and set it down on top of a boulder and scraped another hellgrammite from the mossslick underside.
"'Hand me my pole, will you, bud?' he said.
"I picked up the willow branch he had shaved clean of leaves and notched at one end for his line and walked into the stream with it. The current, filled with snowmelt, climbed over my knees and struck my genitals like a hammer. The sunlight had gone and the tunnel of trees suddenly seemed as cold as the grave.
"I realized L.Q. was looking beyond me, at someone on the bank. Then L.Q. was gone and in his place a huge hatch of pink and dark-winged salmon flies churned over the current.
"'You always get in the water with your clothes on, Mr. Holland? Hand me your stick and I'll pull you out,' Nicki Molinari said from the bank, his cigarette smoke leaking like a piece of cotton from his mouth."
Critics may complain that Billy Bob Holland and Dave Robicheaux are simply two embodiments of the same white hat hero. To me that isn't a complaint and I eagerly look forward to reading James Lee Burke's still later novels, White Doves at Morning, and Jolie Blon's Bounce, whomever his heroes may be.-- Gerry Rising