Sunday 17 December 2017

Books: Another slice of Holland family saga

Thriller: House of the Rising Sun, James Lee Burke, Orion, hdbk, 448 pages, €29.50

Back to his roots: James Lee Burke draws deeply on his own family history in House of the Rising Sun
Back to his roots: James Lee Burke draws deeply on his own family history in House of the Rising Sun
House of the Rising Sun

Myles McWeeney

Although he writes mystery novels, James Lee Burke is widely regarded as being one of America's best living writers in any genre. A distinctive prose style that verges on the poetic, his ability to bring to vivid life the beauty and fury of nature and his ad gallery of picaresque yet beautifully drawn characters have won him legions of fans. Burke turns 80 in December, and for the last 30 years has delivered one bestselling mystery after another, most of them featuring Cajun Sheriff's deputy Dave Robicheaux and his private investigator buddy Clete Purcell. These novels are set in the steamy bayous of Louisiana in the town of New Iberia, where Burke lives for part of the year, and Robicheaux, like Burke himself, is a Catholic and an alcoholic, although Burke has not had a drink for more than three decades.

Burke tasted literary success early in life. He sold his first short story at the age of 19 and by his mid-20s had had a raft of stories and three novels published. Then he hit a brick wall. His fourth novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected an astonishing 111 times, and Burke was not published in hardback for 13 years. Ironically, when the book finally appeared in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. Burke had to do everything and anything to support himself, his wife Pearl and their four children, working variously as a roustabout in the Texas oil fields, a surveyor, a journalist, a social worker and a teacher. Although Burke lives in Louisiana and, more recently, Montana, he was born in Houston and brought up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast. In recent years, since the publication in 1997 of Cimarron Rose, the first of the Holland family series of thrillers which features Texas Ranger turned pro bono lawyer Billy Bob Holland, many of Burke's books are set in that State.

In this second and generationally intertwined series, Burke is drawing deeply on his own family history on the maternal side - his mother was directly related to the Holland clan. The patriarch of the family is Son Holland, who was introduced in Two For Texas, published in 1982, and his grandson is Hackberry Holland, rancher, city marshal and Texas Ranger, the main character in The House of the Rising Sun. But, confusingly, there is another Hackberry Holland, the first Hack's grandson, whose Korean War experiences are told in Lay Down My Sword and Shield and two further novels. Then there is Weldon Holland, another of Hack Snr's grandsons, who encounters Bonnie and Clyde in Wayfaring Stranger.

This latest slice of the Holland family saga ranges from revolutionary Mexico in the 1880s to the Battle of the Marne in 1918. Ambitious and almost Arthurian in scope, it details the increasingly desperate and violent search by Hackberry Holland for his estranged son Ishmael, a captain in the US army. Ishmael has fallen into the clutches of Arnold Beckmann, a blood-thirsty Austrian arms dealer from whom Hack has stolen a priceless artefact, the mythic Cup of Christ.

The story features three extraordinary women, Hack's wife and Ishmael's mother Ruby, brothel-keeper Beatrice DeMolay, descended from a Crusader knight, and Maggie Bassett, one-time lover of the Sundance Kid. It is a cracking adventure story, told with verve and dash and reinforces Burke's reputation as a fine artist.

However, like most, if not all, of Burke's protagonists, throughout the novel Hackberry is haunted by the memory of the multitude of men and women he has killed. If there is a criticism of Burke's body of work, it may well be that the almost supernatural element of his characters' overweening regret is overwrought and ultimately somewhat unbelievable.

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