Before James Lee Burke became a best-selling crime fiction writer, he was a cocky literary upstart. A tantrum over promotion of his third novel in 1971 led Burke to quit his publisher. For the next 15 years, he tried to find another one. After more than a hundred rejections, his masochistically loyal agent, Philip Spitzer, sold The Lost Get-Back Boogie to Louisiana State University Press. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Around the same time, Burke began experimenting with a mystery novel starring Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic. It didn't take long for Robicheaux to become a popular character -- or for his creator to begin writing books at a prodigious clip (24 and counting, with another in the can for 2005). Since the late-1990s, Burke has been alternating the Robicheaux mysteries with a series centered on a former Texas Ranger-turned-attorney, Billy Bob Holland. The men are similarly noble and afflicted, fighting for some form of justice while also battling an ineffable attraction to violence.
In Holland's last outing, Bitteroot (2001), a psychotic biker-turned-rodeo clown named Wyatt Dixon wreaks havoc. Among other lovable activities, he buries Billy Bob's detective wife, Temple Carrol, alive. (She lives.)
Now Holland and Dixon are together again, in Burke's new novel, In the Moon of Red Ponies. In a masterly stroke of plotting, Holland and Dixon, the latter now a supposed born-again Christian who's beaten his jail rap on a technicality, will be forced to help each other, much to the antipathy of both. The setting is Missoula, Mont., where Holland has moved Temple and his grown son, Lucas, and hung his shingle.
Elmore Leonard likes to tell writers they should never write about weather. He also advises against lengthy back-story and scene-setting. Lean and spare -- with snappy dialogue -- serves the reader much better. He's right, but, as always, there are exceptions. Just ask Leonard himself, who, with many other loyal fans, embraces Burke's work. Each James Lee Burke novel breaks dozens of crime-lit rules and lives to tell the tale with panache nonetheless. His books offer an odd amalgamation of genre fiction, literary flair, political commentary, philosophy and relentless weather updates.
A typical example: "The sun became a hot red spark between two mountains, and a purple shade fell across the valley floor just as the moon rose over the hills in the South. He sat for a long time studying the trees, his arms folded across his knees, studying his land, the dirt road that traversed it, the dark green shine on the river winding out of the cottonwoods."
Lest this all seem too abstract, Burke delivers the goods when it comes to the bad and the ugly. Dixon remains a creepy presence and is joined by a haunted mercenary-turned-cop named Darrel McComb as well as the corrupt corporate titan Karsten Mabus, whose high-tech agricultural lab is the center of numerous misdeeds. Mabus controls a company called Global Research, which is a cross between Archer Daniels Midland and Halliburton. In not-so-subtle allusions, Burke makes his opinion of the Bush Administration and the Iraqi war as clear as a Montana trout stream.
Holland is pulled into the vortex of Mabus and his cretins when Johnny American Horse, an ancestor of Crazy Horse and a strident eco-activist subject to drunken blackouts, is suspected of breaking into Mabus's Montana lab and stealing damaging records. Johnny's attorney? Billy Bob Holland, of course. That's when the body count begins -- and, soon enough, nobody can trust anyone.
Dixon's former lover, Greta Lundstrum, turns up as Mabus' conniving security chief. And the doomed idealist, Johnny American Horse, gains the fiercely loyal devotion of Amber Finley, who, it turns out, is the daughter of Mabus ally Romulus Finley, a United States senator.
Billy Bob Holland remains a man in conflict with himself, and his past. As a Texas Ranger, he fought drug runners across the border in Mexico. Years later, Billy Bob recoils at the vindictive justice he and his partner, L.Q. Navarro, meted out in a series of gruesome ambushes.
As in the three earlier Billy Bob Holland novels, In the Moon of Red Ponies includes several instances of L.Q. Navarro appearing before his old compadre and offering advice. Holland doesn't fight or shirk these interludes, but he does find himself renewing his guilt. After all, Navarro died when Holland accidentally fired upon him during a shootout.
Still, Holland can't help himself. He resorts to violence yet again in the new novel, with similar regret. Dixon's twisted character can be chilling, and amusing. When hauled in as a suspect after yet another shady enterprise in not-so-mild Missoula, Dixon taunts his interrogators by telling them he plans a duck-hunting trip with Vice President Cheney, whereupon he'll pass along recommendations on the officers' behalf.
Johnny American Horse, as Burke tells it, is a Christ-like figure, a man doomed by his zeal for purity and reform. His ardent, if foolhardy, opposition to the collision of big money and big politics is driven by an embittered experience as a decorated soldier during Desert Storm in 1991.
For Burke, the disparate elements -- Iraq, Native American culture, disillusioned cops and FBI agents, Montana's breathtaking scenery, the triumph of money over all else -- make for a potent cocktail.
And, as always, the resolution is neither neat nor expected. For Burke, In the Moon of the Red Ponies gallops with intensity and eloquence, cementing his place as one of the few best-selling writers with both literary cachet and visceral storytelling skills.