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Impulse control

Burke's Fools sprouts strong characters

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In his 30th novel, James Lee Burke returns to the dust-swept Texas town, just across from the Mexican border, where Hackberry Holland humbly reigns as sheriff. We last saw Hack in 2009's Rain Gods when the contemplative hero came face to face with the gruesome murder of nine women buried in the desert. That same desert serves as the setting for another murder, when alcoholic ex-boxer Danny Boy Lorca witnesses a man tortured to death and reports it to Hack, and to Pam Tibbs, the chief deputy many decades Hack's junior with whom he's resisting a romantic entanglement.

James Lee Burke has never shied away from revealing the evils of what one human can do to another, and Feast Day of Fools is no exception:

"The fingers scattered up on the slope went one at a time," reports Hack's stoic coroner on the victim's remains, "The toes were next. My guess is he died from shock. He was probably dead when he was scalped and taken apart, but I can't say for sure."

Hack soon learns there was another intended victim, a government agent, whose narrow escape in the middle of the night saved him from being sold to Al-Qaeda.

James Lee Burke reads from Feast Day of Fools at Fact & Fiction, Tuesday, September 27, at 7 PM. Free.
  • James Lee Burke reads from Feast Day of Fools at Fact & Fiction, Tuesday, September 27, at 7 PM. Free.

Like most of Burke's novels, Feast Day of Fools doesn't stop at the main plot arterial. The investigation leads Hack to a somber yet unforgettable array of characters: Anton Ling, the mysterious Chinese woman dubbed La Magdalena, who is known for her aid to desperate illegals (and whose grace reminds Hackberry of his dead wife); Cody Daniels, a self-righteous minister whose involvement in the bombing of an abortion clinic leads him to desperate measures; Josef Sholokoff, a diabolical Russian porn dealer; and, among others, Temple Dowling, the son of a former Texas senator, who reminds Hack of former days he would just as soon forget, if only he weren't so filled with guilt.

Unlike many other detective novels, the sprouting threads actually work, bolstering instead of splintering the novel (Raymond Chandler once famously quipped that even he didn't fully understand what happened in the convoluted Big Sleep). Burke certainly accomplishes the necessary: He weaves the storylines together until they coalesce into one. To accomplish this, Burke concentrates on the inner lives of his characters, focusing primarily on the reasons why grifters become virtuous and the godly turn dangerous. In this world, events—fortuitous and otherwise—don't just happen, they are caused by the carefully delineated impulses of characters.

And then there's the return of one of Burke's most unforgettable villains and perhaps one of the most enigmatic evildoers in all of literature: Preacher Jack Collins. Presumed dead at the end of Rain Gods, Collins is an even more startling paradox.

"Who are you, Jack?" asks the frightened escapee whom Collins helps through the desert.

"You don't want to know."

The reader gradually realizes that this novel is as much about Hackberry Holland as it is about the case that goes across the border (and back again) and as far back as the youths of its key players. Taking into account all the Hackberry Holland books, this is the one where Hack has reached his enlightenment—though he would never admit it:

Hackberry Holland had come to believe that age was a separate country you did not try to explain to younger people...If age brought gifts, he didn't know what they were. It had brought him neither wisdom nor peace of mind.

We don't want to see this one come to an end.

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