"When people talk about the good old days," James Lee Burke says, "they're not remembering them quite right."
That's one reason, the bestselling author says, that he set his new novel, The Jealous Kind, in Houston in 1952.
Burke, 79, is best known for his popular series of novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, the most recent of which was Light of the World in 2013.
Since then, Burke has written a trilogy loosely based on the history of the Holland family, his mother's ancestors, whom he also wrote about in earlier books. Wayfaring Stranger (2014) was set in the 1930s through the 1950s; House of the Rising Sun (2015) opened in 1918. The Jealous Kind — maybe his best book ever, and I'm a longtime Burke fan — concludes the trio.
The new novel's narrator, Aaron Holland Broussard, is 17 years old in 1952 — just about the age Burke, who was born and raised in Houston, was that year.
But Aaron isn't an autobiographical character, the author says during a phone conversation from his Montana ranch. "Even if a novel starts with a biographical character, the character will change and become someone else."
Aaron's story begins with a fateful encounter in Galveston Beach just after his junior year of high school. "Her name was Valerie Epstein," Burke writes. "She was sitting in a long-bodied pink Cadillac convertible, what we used to call a boat, in a drive-in restaurant wrapped in neon, near the beach, her bare shoulders powdered with sunburn. Her hair wasn't just auburn; it was thick and freshly washed and had gold streaks in it. ..."
Valerie is on the brink of tears amid an argument with her boyfriend, an arrogant rich kid named Grady Harrelson, when Aaron asks her, "Anything wrong?" He has no idea that his act of gallantry will turn his entire world upside down and unleash a cascade of violence that threatens him and everyone he loves.
"We see this story through the eyes of a 17-year-old," Burke says. "He believes in the world. He believes in people. Then he's exposed to this.
"It's my attempt to write about the 1950s in a more accurate way than I've seen in other books. And, of course, the TV portrayals of the '50s are laughable. They have these people all living in beautiful homes and leading idyllic lives. It wasn't that way."
In the '50s, Burke says, "Houston was the murder capital of America."
The only fictional portrayals of the era he considers accurate are a novel called The Amboy Dukes and the classic movie Rebel Without a Cause. The novel was written by Irving Shulman, and, Burke says, "I recently discovered that he also wrote (the original story treatment) for Rebel Without a Cause."
Burke's fictional stories about the Holland clan trace back much further to his real great-grandfather, Sam Morgan Holland. He was a Confederate soldier, then a cattle drover during Reconstruction — and a gunfighter.
"They say he killed five to nine men in gunfights, but I think it was probably more," Burke says. "He was a violent, angry man, but then he became a preacher. I'd hate to hear what his sermons sounded like, but he was a saddle preacher on the Chisholm Trail for the rest of his life."
Sam Morgan Holland's fictional son, Hackberry Holland, is a rancher and Texas ranger who appears in several Burke novels. His grandsons, Billy Bob, Weldon and another Hackberry, are all related to Aaron. "His mother is the sister of Hackberry the younger," Burke says.
The internal conflict between the desire to be moral and the urge to violence marks all of those characters, including Aaron. A respectful young man, good student and talented guitar player, he also suffers from blackout rages.
Despite the stratified and segregated society of Houston in the '50s, Aaron's relationships, friendly and not, cross all kinds of lines. He finds himself at odds with Mafia goons, Mexican gangs, former agents of the OSS (which became the CIA) and wealthy white supremacists alike.
"He and his peers are the members of a class war that dominated the postwar era, an era we still find ourselves in," Burke says.
"History will show that the 20th century entirely remodeled European culture, Western culture, leaving us the only superpower.
"We became a neocolonial power. We don't like to think so, but we stand on the same sands and are headed toward the same end. People talk about American exceptionalism, but we're not the exception, we're the rule."
Houston, he says, is a "microcosm" of those forces. But The Jealous Kind does not read at all like a polemic — it's a hold-on-to-your-seat thriller interwoven with a love story, told in lyrical prose.
"It's a conscious choice," Burke says. "If an artist uses his medium to proselytize, he's no longer an artist. Art is not politics.
"That was the great limitation George Orwell imposed on his own (fiction). His political essays are among the best ever written, but because they're political they're locked in time."
William Shakespeare, Burke notes, was "probably the most politically oriented writer in history. But the story is always larger. We read Hamlet not to study politics but to learn about the human condition."
With this trilogy about the Hollands completed, will Burke write more books about Robicheaux? "I don't know. I've written 20, and I see the series as almost a perfect series.
"But I never plan ahead. I'm working on a new book now. I'm three pages in."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.