Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 433 pages, ISBN 978-1-5011-0710-8
At public events—book signings or speaking engagements for example—a question I’m often asked is Who’s your favorite author? And the answer is always the same . . . Although I’m informed by many crime writers—Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, James Elroy, Poe, Hemingway, Stephen King, Robert Parker, Ken Bruen, Nelson DeMille and Lawrence Block to name a few of the many I’m acquainted with—the author I’ve been most influenced by is James Lee Burke. I’ve not only read every one of his books, I’ve read many of them twice, and find new elements to admire with each review. He inspires me to try to be a better writer, and at the same time, to be a better person. Burke’s characters are imperfect, elementally damaged creatures who often commit human errors of such magnitude that an ordinary person would be crushed . . . mentally, physically and spiritually. And therein lies some of Burke’s genius, because those same characters come equipped with moral cores that “burn hotter and whiter than a phosphorous hand grenade on a moonless night in no-man’s land.” It makes his characters fascinating because—truth-be told—every reader can recognize just a wee bit of themselves in those selfsame individuals. Put another way . . . everyone has the capability and the capacity to do good and bad things.
House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke is his thirty-fifth published work, and it’s a masterpiece; possibly his best yet and a sure contender for an unprecedented fourth Edgar award.
The novel opens in 1916 with the protagonist, a former Texas Ranger named Hackberry Holland, searching for his son Ishmael somewhere in Mexico during the Civil War. Ishmael, whose name is not a random choice by Burke, is a captain in the United States Army. He’s the commanding officer of an all black cavalry unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, a legendary group of black fighting men who are scouring the Mexican desert in an attempt to capture Poncho Villa, who crossed the international border into the U.S. and attacked the small village of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 with a force of 1500 men. The attackers looted, then burnt the town and murdered nineteen people. In retaliation, President Wilson sent a battalion of men under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to capture or kill Poncho Villa. Those are the historical facts against which Mr. Burke opens his novel with imaginary characters Hackberry Holland and his long-lost and abandoned son Ishmael. Hackberry can’t find Ishmael, but gets into a gun battle that leaves four Mexican soldiers dead and himself in possession of an artifact that may or may not be the Holy Grail. From there the story flashes back to the late nineteenth century and fills in the blanks with the rest of Hackberry’s story as he interacts with many real-life, legendary characters of the old west . . . the gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, Henry Longabaugh and Harvey Logan . . . the latter pair aka Sundance and Kid Curry, members of the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang made famous by the movies. Hackberry is a deeply flawed man who’s entrusted by fate with a sacred task because, in spite of all his faults, he has a moral center that is unerringly righteous . . . it’s what makes him so fascinating . . . and when combined with Burke’s lyrical prose, social commentary and heartfelt homage to the American West of the nineteenth century, makes House of the Rising Sun a masterpiece.