Sunday, September 25, 2011

James Lee Burke masters local mystery

Burke compelling as ever in his 30th mystery novel

Published: Sunday, September 25, 2011, 12:25 AM
Diana Pinckley 
Hackberry Holland, sheriff of a small county on the Texas-Mexico border and star of "Feast Day of Fools, " is in his mid-70s. The laconic widower can still kick down a locked steel door, however. He also understands the motivations of criminals, feels moved to save souls, and bears troubles emblazoned on his psyche by the Korean War. Waxing poetic and angry by turns, he reflects on the injustices of age, immigration, and his vast, cruelly beautiful surroundings.
Feast Day of Fools james lee burke.jpg"Feast Day of Fools" by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, $26.99).
Like the hero of his 30th work, to be published Tuesday, James Lee Burke delivers -- again. There's a reason Burke, 75, has earned the Grand Master title from the Mystery Writers of America and is tagged by some colleagues as the greatest living mystery writer. He combines complex characterization, driving action and a philosophical bent -- and his consistency is remarkable, carrying him through 18 Dave Robicheaux books, set in Louisiana, and now the third novel in the Hack Holland series. The man is legendary, and rightly so.
Holland is something of a legend, too.. He's an honest sheriff in a place where almost everyone can be bought. He's devoted to doing the right thing, but it's painful, physically and mentally. His sciatica hurts. His knees creak. "He felt old in the way people feel old when they have more knowledge of the world than they need, " Burke writes.
The book's name is taken from a medieval holiday when "the lower-level dysfunctional people in the church were allowed to do whatever they wanted ...They got it all out of their systems and the next day they all came to church hung over and were forgiven."
Feast Day of Fools is full of dysfunctional people, but their dysfunction is fascinating -- and sympathetic -- in a way only Burke can manage. His characters range from a smuggler of people who carries the bones of his murdered children in a box, to a woman who offers food and spiritual solace to illegals as they pass her ranch.
Burke's cast is as sprawling as his plot. It includes deputy Pam Tibbs, a sometimes love interest for Holland, a Russian mobster accompanied by a team of mercenaries, and a flag-waving pastor who tries to save souls in his Cowboy Chapel -- including his own.
And then there's Preacher Jack Collins, a man thought to have died in "Rain Gods, " the previous book in the series. He's a a sociopath who takes great joy in eradicating people with his vintage Thompson submachine gun, but adheres to his own cockeyed moral code. Holland characterizes him, a licensed exterminator, as "the Orkin man posing as Jesus."
In some ways, Preacher Jack is Holland through a cracked lens -- a negative image of the sheriff and a curiously worthy opponent. "I'm like you, Jack, " Holland says near the book's end, "over the hill and out of place and time, with not a lot to lose."
When rough justice must be done, Preacher Jack and Holland land on the same side, at least for a brief and action-filled time.
But "Feast Day of Fools" is more than action. It's a sprawling, compelling, allegorical story with characters that just won't get out of my mind. Through it all, Burke shares some of his hard-won knowledge about life. And that makes it one of the Grand Master's best.
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