Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

James Lee Burke

”On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic's shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tires. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.”

James Lee Burke is the finest writer among those who currently publish in the crime genre in the USA. Whoever is number two isn't even close. As they might say in the sports world, there ain't a one of them who could carry Burke's jockstrap. In a way, it's a shame that he writes in the genre. He could have really done some damage as a serious novelist had he chosen to do so, but he just keeps churning out a book a year, and it's remarkable that he's as good as he is with that kind of production.

The above passage is from his latest book, Rain Gods. It's a sample of why he's so good. That paragraph really sets the scene. And how does he do it? With details, my friends, with details. “On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas” tells us that it's deep summer and the adjective “burnt-out” suggests the desolation that is characteristic of that part of Texas. Burke doesn't just tell us that there's a shut-down factory in the town. He gives us the details. The car without window glass is another nice detail, suggesting that the young man driving it is one of society's losers. The collapsed mechanic's shed is nicely described, and instead of just saying that the stoplight's plastic covers had been busted out, Burke tells us that they'd been shot out. That reminds us that this is a place where gun violence just might come easily.

Not all of Burke's prose in Rain Gods comes up to that paragraph, nor is it realistic to expect it to, given the way Burke churns out his novels. And a couple of turns in the plots made me groan a bit. They were just too expected and cliched. He didn't seem to want to let any of the “good guys” get killed, when the logic of his narrative seemed to dictate that they should have been. His main villain is over the top as well, but that's something that's to be expected in this genre. If one's a fan of crime fiction, this one isn't to be missed.


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