1. Archive


BITTERROOT, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, $25, 336 pp)

When I first picked up James Lee Burke's new Billy Bob Holland novel, Bitterroot, the cover put me off. The story _ and a good one it is _ takes place in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains, but the mountain portrayed on the cover is clearly Mount Moran in Wyoming's Tetons. Those of us who have lived in Jackson Hole are very protective of our Tetons.

But enough grousing. Holland, former Texas Ranger, now a Texas lawyer, heads to Montana to visit a friend, Doc Voss, who is challenging a mining project that is leaching cyanide into the environment. Holland intends only to do some fly fishing, but when Doc kicks in the teeth of a biker and then his daughter is raped by three thugs, Holland finds himself mired in Doc's messes. They include a besotted writer, a mobster, a charismatic cult leader and his followers, one of whom has a personal grudge against Holland, a local sheriff who is smarter than he seems, and Holland's own son, who drops into the middle of the fray when he falls for an Native American woman who is an agent of local ATF agents.

In Bitterroot, Burke conveys an uncommon sense of place, and when some of the prettiest territory in the world is mounted on a well-conceived and exciting story, what could be bad?

FATAL VOYAGE, by Kathy Reichs (Scribner, $25, 368 pp)

Kathy Reichs' popular forensic anthropologist, Tempe Brennan, literally walks in on a plane crash as Fatal Voyage opens, in scenes so horrible they could curdle your will to fly. Brennan scrambles through a North Carolina forest among the remains of the passengers of an airline that apparently exploded in flight. Halves of bodies, limbs from bodies, bits of flesh are everywhere.

As Tempe helps the local sheriff, Lucy Crowe, keep the crash scene unscathed by curious humans or hungry scavengers, the lieutenant governor shows up inexplicably to have a look around. Shortly thereafter, Tempe is confronted by a pack of coyotes who have found themselves a human foot, which she manages to retrieve, only to learn that it is way older and more decomposed than any appendage that died aboard the airliner. Tempe also happens upon a strange, fortress-like house hidden so well in the forest that not even Crowe knew of its existence. But the mere act of finding the house gets Tempe into a world of trouble that could cost her her reputation and her life.

Fatal Voyage goes off in a dozen different directions and the climax, while exciting, seems too little to support what came before. The worst of the bad guys didn't convince me. Still, it was fun seeing Tempe team up again with her buddy from Canada, Andrew Ryan, and acquire the services of a very smart dog named Boyd. Take this one to the beach and enjoy.

ECHO BURNING, by Lee Child (Putnam, $23.95, 368 pp)

Lee Child's protagonist, Jack Reacher, is a character I like, who finds himself in situations I can't quite buy. Echo Burning, the fifth in the series, continues the tradition.

Reacher, the son of a career military man, former military policeman himself, owner of nothing, resident of nowhere, a man who keeps a toothbrush in his shirt pocket and possesses only the clothes on his back, is hitching a ride on the road again when he is picked up by a beautiful Hispanic woman, Carmen Greer. Greer spends no time getting to know Reacher before she asks him to kill her abusive husband, Sloop, who is about to be released from prison.

Reacher, moralistic anti-hero that he is, won't kill the man but promises to hang out at the Greer ranch where Carmen and her daughter live under the watchful eye of Sloop's evil and racist mother and brother. Meanwhile, at Carmen's insistence, Reacher shows her how to use a handgun. Only hours pass after Sloop's arrival before he turns up dead with two bullets from Carmen's gun in his forehead. She is carted off to jail and her daughter disappears. This unfolds on a backdrop of a trio of assassins who first kill Sloop's lawyer and then come after Reacher.

Duplicitousness abounds, and the bad guy is obvious early. Still, in the Lee Child tradition, Echo Burning will catch you up and keep you moving. Call it a guilty pleasure, and enjoy.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers, Handyman and Maximum Impact (Forge)