What I’m Reading: James Lee Burke – Feast Day of Fools

The most famous of James Lee Burke’s recurring protagonists is undoubtedly Dave Robicheaux, and he is also the one who figures in more novels than any others. There are others however, and one of them is Hackberry Holland, who Burke first introduced in 1971 in Lay Down My Sword and Shield, in what first seemed a one-off novel, only to return to the character almost 40 years later in 2010’s Rain Gods. Something about the character seems to be particularly suitable for Burke’s current writing, as it took him only two years to write another novel with him as the protagonist.

I have not read Lay Down My Sword and Shield yet, but I consider Rain Gods one of the best of Burke’s novels. It is significantly harsher and bleaker than most of Burke’s other works, and this indeed seems to be a characteristic of the series as a whole, as Feast Day Of Fools continues in that vein. I think that this is probably at least partly due to them being told in the third person rather than the first (like the Dave Robicheaux or Billy Bob Holland novels), thus putting the reader at a distance from the protagonist and inviting a more critical perspective on his character and actions. But it is also due to the location these novels take place in, namely the arid desert of Texas, and like always in the novels of James Lee Burke the scenery imprints itself on the souls of the people who inhabit it, producing a very different type of character than the lush Louisiana landscapes.

This becomes particularly striking in what is for all practical purposes the second protagonist of the novel – Preacher Jack Collins, as evil a character as Burke (or anyone else for that matter) ever conceived and who already figured in Rain Gods (making him, I think the only recurring villain in Burke’s oeuvre – and I can’t help but wonder whether it’s him as much as his main protagonists that made Burke return to Hackberry Holland again so soon). He is just as compelling and as nasty as in the previous novel, if anything he comes across as even more twisted when events force him and Sheriff Hackberry to work together against a common enemy. Collins is a genuinely creepy character, and even the chapters we get from his point of view do nothing to make him more likeable or even relatable – he remains thoroughly evil in and old testament sort of way which for me at least was reminiscent of what is still the most impressive of all preacher-villains, Robert Mitchum’s character in The Night of the Hunter.

The writing here as always very lyrical, the long, poetical descriptions on first sight a strange choice to go with the violence of events (extreme even for the standards of a James Lee Burke novel) and the fast pace of the plot. But as in most of his novels, Burke makes it work; the vivid evocations of scenery and weather enhance the plot and add many additional layers, both in terms of symbolism as general esthetic impact, the latter not all different from the effect Sam Peckinpah achieves by filming a violent shoo-out in slow motion. James Lee Burke is almost eighty years old now (and it is worth noting that his protagonists aren’t the youngest either) but he is still going strong and remains one of the most interesting crime authors writing today.

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