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Friday, September 18, 2009

Rain Gods

In his second Hackberry Holland novel, Rain Gods, James Lee Burke explores the battle faced by Texas lawmen charged with stopping drugs and illegal aliens from crossing the state’s southern border. The fact that Hurricane Katrina flushed some of the worst New Orleans scum into Texas, criminals who thrive on human suffering and weaknesses, including human trafficking, makes Sheriff Holland’s job just that much tougher.

Hack Holland admits to himself that he has lived a full life but even at seventy-something years of age he is not ready to call it quits, and he his still the chief law enforcement officer in his little corner of southwest Texas. Hack is a reasonable man, not a judgmental one. He readily admits that his own past includes a time during which he was both a “drunk and a whoremonger” but those years have given him keen insight into the human condition. What he discovers behind a church late one afternoon, however, will shake him to his core.

Working on an anonymous tip directing him to the empty ground behind the abandoned church, Holland unearths the machine-gunned bodies of nine women and girls who had been killed there just hours earlier. What he sees and smells as he uncovers the bodies causes him to flash back to his days as a Korean War POW and he knows that his nights are destined to be filled with nightmares again. What he does not know is that he has just stepped into the middle of a fight between New Orleans lowlifes that began decades earlier.

Rain Gods is an epic confrontation between good and evil but it is one in which those on the side of good are not always squeaky clean and those on the side of evil sometimes live under a moral code only they can understand. Its plot is a relatively simple one - but plot is not the most important thing in this James Lee Burke novel. What Burke does best is create complicated, totally believable, characters by adding layer after layer to their makeup while exploring what it is that makes each of them tick. And that is exactly what he does in Rain Gods.

Joining Hackberry Holland in this powerful story are Pam Tibbs, the young deputy who is falling in love with Hack as she works along side him to catch the killers; Pete Flores, the drunken Iraq War vet who knows too much about the murders to be allowed to live; Vikki Gaddis, Pete’s long-suffering girlfriend; and “the preacher,” a killer with enough of a conscious that he almost becomes a sympathetic character. Interestingly, Burke uses three very strong female characters to save some of his male characters from themselves: Holland has Pam Tibbs to save him from his fatalistic decisions, Vikki Gaddis is willing to flee alongside Pete Flores , and New Orleans gangster Nick Dolan finds that his wife Esther will fight like a tiger to save his life. Without their women, none of these men would have likely survived what happens to them in Rain Gods.

Burke has a good feel for what life in southwest Texas is like and he uses the look and climate of that part of the state almost as an additional character. Its bleakness and isolation offer the perfect setting for the story being told, a battle between the not-so-perfect and the not-completely-bad set in an environment that can be beautiful and depressing at the same time.

Rated at: 5.0

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