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Rain Gods, By James Lee Burke

One of the things that makes James Lee Burke both one of the best of thriller writers, and something more as well, is that he has always been fascinated by grace. He does not necessarily think about it in religious terms, though religious language is something that many both his heroes and the worst of his villains have in common, so much as the capacity to move lightly on the earth, to retain both a measure of innocence and a serious-mindedness about what is past.

Many of his characters are wounded, often self-wounded through alcoholism and other bad habits; his novels are about recovery, and often redemption. They also tend to have a pastoral streak. Characters go to the city to do their sinning and to the countryside to find some sort of peace. This applies whether or not the city in question is New Orleans, though it often is. In one moment in Rain Gods, two fugitives escape murder by running in among the celebrants of a riverside baptism. They trust holiness to protect them.

Rain Gods, one of Burke's most powerful books for some time, is set in Texas, in the area policed by ageing Hackberry Holland, whose nephew Billy Bob has featured in a number of novels; Holland has a past which includes breaking under torture in Korea, work for the ACLU and a dead second wife: he is a man whose areas of frailty simply make him stronger because of his awareness of them. He finds himself caught up in the complicated consequences of the massacre of some trafficked Thai women, and up against a man who is his dark shadow: "Preacher" Jack Collins, who likes to see himself as not merely a thug for hire, but in constant dialogue with God.

There is never, in the reader's mind, any serious question that Holland will win this engagement. But what price will he pay along the way, and how he will bear it? One of the problems that Collins finds himself hindered by, and Holland helped, is that many people are not as they seem. Some people caught up in crime will step away from further moral trespass once they confront the implications of what they have already done. Pete, who took a driving job that ended in his witnessing horrors, tries to do the right thing. Strip-club owner Nick Dolan turns out to have more integrity than even he could have imagined - peddling flesh is one thing, but mass murder is where he draws the line.

In particular, Collins - who may have been responsible for the death of his mother and whose preparedness to machine-gun the Thai women was in part a matter of a fundamental misogyny- finds himself crippled, outwitted and ultimately poisoned by a series of strong women. Like Holland, they speak truth to him even when it puts them in danger of his wrath. In the end, Collins is no prince of darkness, much as he would like to be; he is a killer with demented pretensions. What gives Rain Gods its particular vigour is that Burke knows the appeal of writing about men like Collins but, unlike some colleagues, remembers whose side he is on.

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