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CRIME FICTION Rain Gods -- living out our tragedian lot

Not your regular James Lee Burke character but an aging town sheriff with more in common with King Lear than a mythic Wyatt Earp. Burke's protagonists are usually pursued by demons -- often gathered up in past imperialist wars -- and with Sheriff Hackberry Holland the dead hand of the Korean War rests on his mind as a nightmare of regret.

Despite the very busy plot, this novel is about the mind of a man who knows that life is finite and often, in the choices we are forced to make, the nemesis with which we struggle is so often a mirror of what rests within ourselves. So in his pursuit of mass murderer and elusive apocalyptic madman, Preacher Jack, Holland has to stretch his measure if only to keep up with the slaughter with a few notches of his own.

It can be bloody hell in Texas, even today -- but when Burke addresses the criminal intersection between people smugglers, drug dealers and pimps; his novels function as tragedies -- or, to be more precise, near tragedies -- as despite the murder and mayhem some one has to live through it all so there can be a sequel.

That Holland or another Burke hero will survive may be a given, but en route it's all about the getting of wisdom and Burke's novels are meditations on the human existence formatted by competing moralities and coarse pragmatisms played out at the point of a gun.

Evil makes sense in Burke's world. All deeds are sensible. What may seem like a good idea at the time is really about making a living the best any character knows how. There is judgment that separates good from evil, and punishes accordingly and the price for victory is always too high. But at least, in the end, things can get back to normal.

That we fight these fights in a world of stunning beauty, of sunsets and lightning storms, is mere ambiance not the gods making a ruling on our petty squabbles at the point of a gun.

In that sense 21st Century James Lee Burke has moved on from William Shakespeare and now under the regime of our modern democracies we get to live out a tragedian's lot so long as we do harm to others.

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