Tuesday, December 1, 2009

THE RAIN GODS - James Lee Burke

FIRST LINE: "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."

Hackberry Holland is a Texas sheriff carrying around haunting ghosts from his past. Pete Flores is a young Iraq vet with ghosts of his own. The two men and their ghosts cross paths when Hackberry uncovers a shallow grave filled with nine murdered illegal immigrants. Hackberry's investigation and Pete Flores' knowledge of the crime bring both men into the cross hairs of a passel of criminals who will do just about anything to keep the mass murder buried.

James Lee Burke introduced Hackberry Holland back in LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD. Hackberry still had a story to tell and thus he returns in THE RAIN GODS, where Burke remains at the top of his game.

As is par for the course in a Burke novel, the setting comes alive and takes on a character role in the story. And the human characters are haunted by the people and actions of their pasts. In addition to his masterful use of setting, Burke also has a gift with character development. And he doesn't relegate that development strictly to the protagonist. Burke's villains are as complex and layered as any other character in the novel. Preacher Jack Collins is a prime example of that complexity. The reader would be hard pressed to find a character from literature with a blacker heart or a more kaleidoscopic development, which makes him all the more intriguing.

What continues to baffle me as a reader of Burke's novels is how he can build up a villain to be repulsive and evil and yet there's always some element, sometimes very minute but still present, of sympathy. James Lee Burke has a way of tugging at the reader's every emotion. Maybe it's the beauty of the language, or his extraordinary talent with a tale. But sometimes I just choose to believe he has magic and he instills it in every book he signs his name to. He certainly didn't disappoint in THE RAIN GODS.

I listened to THE RAIN GODS on audiobook, read by Tom Stechschulte. Stechschulte also reads Craig McDonald's Hector Lassiter series, so I first had to get past thinking I was listening to Lassiter. Once I was able to do that, I thought Stechschulte did a nice job narrating THE RAIN GODS. His tone matched what I would imagine Hackberry's to be: slow, measured. I found myself imagining Sam Elliot. I think Stechschulte did an outstanding job with Preacher Jack Collins and bringing out a sense of judgment on the world. Overall a good narration.

THE RAIN GODS is published by Simon and Schuster (ISBN: 978-1-4391-2824-4). The audiobook version I listened to is published by Recorded Books (978-1-4407-2705-4). There is also a Simon and Schuster version, but that is read by Will Patton.


Patrick Murphy December 1, 2009 at 10:19 AM  

James Lee Burke is my favorite crime writer. I just love his writing - he is wonderful at creating a picture of the people and the location. His characters are never boring. I have read all of his books and he is just great.

Sam Sattler December 1, 2009 at 7:43 PM  

Great review, Jen. I remember being impressed with that first sentence and reading it three or four times before moving on to the next. :-)

Jen Forbus December 1, 2009 at 9:04 PM  

Thanks Patrick and Sam for stopping by. I agree Patrick, JLB is just amazing.

Thanks Sam. I've become a little obsessed lately with first lines, but isn't this one so perfect for setting the tone right off the bat? I think I heard echos of Faulkner in that sentence! ;)

Corey Wilde December 1, 2009 at 11:11 PM  

Oh, Jen, you've made me feel so guilty for having Lay Down My Sword and Shield in the TBR stack so long. I have to read that before I can progress to Rain Gods, don't I?

Your comment on Burke's gift for making villains repulsive and sympathetic - yes, yes. Right on target. JLB's work is amazing, beautiful, staggering.

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