James Lee Burke is best known for his series of mysteries starring Detective Dave Robicheaux, who makes his home in New Iberia, Louisiana and whose adventures mostly take place there (or in New Orleans, or – in one case that I know of – in Montana). But he does write other books: I read a western a while back. Rain Gods is the first Burke I’ve read that stars Hackberry Holland, sheriff of a small Texas border town that I am pretty sure remains unnamed.
As the book opens, Hack has just discovered a shallow grave filled with illegal immigrants behind a church, and a young man named Pete Flores, a veteran of the war in Iraq, flees town with his girlfriend Vikki. They fear the team of professional criminals that were involved with the shooting, but the threads of the case are quickly so thoroughly intertwined that Pete himself doesn’t know who they’re running from. Between a New Orleans crime boss, a bumbling Texas strip club owner, a psychopathic hit man who thinks he’s the left hand of God, and a couple of young lackeys whose loyalties are yet to be tried, Hack and his deputy Pam Tibbs have their hands full in trying to solve the murder and protect Pete and Vikki. And they may still be working out the relationship they share, to boot.
As in any good mystery story, some subplots come out sooner than others. The man they call “Preacher,” who somehow thinks God is supportive of the mayhem he creates, is an enigma of pure evil; but he’s not the only one whose motives are unclear (or irrational). The romance that Pete and Vikki share is a welcome sweet note; and Hackberry’s storied past and accumulated guilt are a familiar but still satisfying facet. The fact that both Pete and Hack are still processing their experiences in war (Iraq and Korea, respectively) is a sobering note of reality that draws the two generations together effectively.
I don’t feel that Rain Gods is Burke’s finest work; I found it a little bit slow-paced. But it had all the hallmarks that I come to Burke for. Our hero is damaged and has committed great wrongs, but is essentially good. The setting is strongly evoked – and I liked it particularly, as the plot mostly takes place in West Texas borderlands, a location I’m fond of and fairly familiar with. And Preacher’s character is quite frightening – as he was intended to be.
The audio narration by Tom Stechschulte is excellent. I love the different voices he does – especially because there’s such a collection of characters featured here, with different accents and tones of voice that express emotions and pain and insanity. This audio format deserved a fine portrayal, and it got one.
I will be reading more James Lee Burke. But I may prioritize the Robicheaux novels.