Orion, £18.99, 463pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Feast Day of Fools, By James Lee Burke
Friday 30 December 2011
Graham Greene's religious faith was often fragile. When in one of his periodic moments of doubt he suggested to Evelyn Waugh that he was considering resigning from the Catholic novelist coterie to which the two belonged, Waugh was outraged and insisted Greene carry on writing novels with a religious basis, however uncertain his belief had become.
While it is now generally considered that Greene's Catholicism is no disincentive for agnostic or atheist readers, there are those who have problems with the religious underpinnings of one of the great American crime novelists, James Lee Burke. In the novels featuring his troubled private investigator Dave Robicheaux, there is an element that gives Burke naysayers ammunition. The detective's ex-nun partner provides (simultaneously) raunchy sex and a strong sense of the spiritual - a phoney attempt (it's claimed) to have the best of all possible worlds from a sensualist/believer such as Burke, or Greene.
Faith is at the heart of Burke's new novel, but this time there is no attempt at proselytising. Religion here, largely speaking, is of the gun-toting, un-nuanced kind that has hijacked Republican politics in the US.
As with another American writer who combines extreme violence with poetic lyricism, Cormac McCarthy, Burke's stamping ground here is deep South West Texas, and the locales of Feast Day of Fools fairly leap off the page in pungency and bitter vigour. We are once again in the company of Sherriff Hackberry Holland, a veteran of the Korean War, dispensing his precarious line of law enforcement near the border with Mexico.
As in earlier Holland books (notably Rain Gods), his universe is surrealistic and minatory. We are given another monstrous villain in the psychotic preacher Jack Collins, along with the equally terrifying mercenary, Krill. And Burke is even audacious enough to up the ante with another psychopath, the illiterate Negrito, along with the psychologically troubled Reverend Cody Daniels (who enforces the power of the Scriptures with the barrel of a gun). Holland struggles to deal with all these antisocial characters, along with gunrunners, drug smugglers and an enigmatic Chinese woman, "La Magdalena", engaged in smuggling Mexicans into the US.
Even more than in previous James Lee Burke novels, this is a heavily loaded, overwrought narrative, and it's a measure of the author's skill that he always succeeds in persuading us of the reality of this crazed world. His efforts are couched here in the customary poetic prose (aromatic, but never purple) and - Burke detractors should note - there is no attempt to freight in propaganda for the benefits of God's grace. Religion here, as in most of the best thrillers, is a dangerously destabilising force rather than a source of salvation.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 3 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 4 The most powerful passports in the world
- 5 Chinese student carries disabled friend to school every day for three years
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Oldest footage of London landmarks released
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove