We may feel stunned by the violence that seems to fill news reports every day. But James Lee Burke knows it's nothing new. It's America's heritage, as his fine and fierce new novel House of the Rising Sun makes clear.
Burke, a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, is best known for his series of 20 novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, books in which he brings the bayou country and New Orleans to such vivid life you can almost smell the storm rising and the crawfish boiling.
But Burke was born and raised in Houston, and his family has deep roots in Texas. He has written eight previous novels about three members of the Holland family — cousins Weldon, Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland — with Texas settings ranging from the Depression to the current day.
Burke, who took the Holland surname and some parts of these stories from his own mother's family, takes his fictional family saga back even further in time with House of the Rising Sun, which is about the grandfather of Weldon, Billy Bob and Hackberry. Also named Hackberry Holland, he appeared briefly in Burke's last book, the excellent Wayfaring Stranger, as an aging but legendary former Texas Ranger, a formidable man whose solution to most problems was, "Sling blood on the trees."
He's the main character in House of the Rising Sun, which is set mostly in the years just after World War I. As a younger man Hack is even more formidable, a fearless 6-foot-8 giant who in the book's first couple of chapters crosses a desert on horseback with no water after a battle with Pancho Villa's soldiers, is captured by Mexican troops who waterboard and hogtie him at an isolated brothel, then shoots his way out with the help of a mysterious and beautiful woman, stopping to set fire to a hearse loaded with munitions and taking with him a peculiar artifact he finds in the car.
After that, things get rough.
Hack is no soulless killer. Indeed, at this stage of his life he is driven by regret and sorrow: "My conscience bothers me. The men I've slain visit my bedside. Most of them are still in a bad mood. ... The dead don't let go of the world. That's why we put big stones on their graves. To hold them down."
His greatest regret is the loss of a man who is still alive, or at least that's Hack's most fervent hope. A couple of decades before, Hack fell in love with a young union organizer named Ruby Dansen. They had a son, Ishmael. Hack hoped to spend his life with them, but things went wrong — for reasons the book reveals only slowly — and he hasn't seen them in years.
Hack comes to that Mexican bordello because he's trying to find Ishmael, who has served bravely in the war as a white officer in command of black troops, surviving the horrific Battle of the Marne, which Burke describes in nightmarish detail. Sent home to recover from his grievous injuries, Ishmael is more or less kidnapped and seduced by another woman from Hack's past: his wife, Maggie Bassett.
In addition to Hack, who reckons she "might be the anti-Christ," Maggie's past romantic entanglements include one with the Sundance Kid. Her current nonsexual relationship is much more of a concern: She's in cahoots with a charmingly sinister Austrian arms dealer named Arnold Beckman.
Beckman owned the arms that Hack burned up at the bordello — and he also claims ownership of that artifact, a double-ended chalice carved from a strange dark stone and adorned with gold and gems. The woman who ran the bordello and encouraged Hack to take the cup is named Beatrice DeMolay — and if you have any acquaintance with lore surrounding the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, her last name will be a clue that Hack's loot might just be the genuine article.
Burke, who began his writing life as a poet, often employs supernatural elements and religious symbolism in his fiction. In House of the Rising Sun he brings the Grail, with its echoes of both Christian iconography and Arthurian legend, into a modern world where an arms dealer like Beckman makes a vast fortune from supplying the means for slaughter, stoking everything from global warfare to the fears of private citizens for his own gain.
Beckman wants the Grail, and it's not because he's a religious man. Hack wants Ishmael; he doesn't much care about an object that symbolizes a faith he no longer feels, but he also hates to surrender it to Beckman.
Their battle plays out in San Antonio, in and around a crumbling Spanish mission. Hack is reunited with both Ruby and Beatrice, who become his allies, while Maggie's loyalties slither like mercury: "Over the years she had piece by piece gotten rid of her conscience, the way a person got rid of a worrisome appendage."
Reminiscent of books by other great writers such as Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, House of the Rising Sun is a contemporary Western, a duel in which no one wears a white hat. Holland, the one-time Texas Ranger, may seem like a relic, as another lawman points out when Hack asks for his help:
" 'No, what you want is the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday to walk down to the O.K. Corral with you. The old days are gone, Hack.'
" 'Not for me.' "
The old days aren't gone, then or now. The Wild West and its bloody legacy of violence follow Hack into the 20th century, and follow us still into the 21st.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.