on 2 April 2005
James Lee Burke's writing, while always good, seemed not long ago to be bogging down: book after book recycled the same character types, themes and locations; and Dave Robicheaux was running out of jobs to quit and wives to bury. Things looked up when Burke introduced Billy Bob Holland, ex-Texas Ranger with a violent past, but the previous BBH book, Bitterroot, suffered from the extravagant plot twists and caricatures in place of characters that were beginning to mar Burke's writing.
In the Moon of Red Ponies, however, launches Burke back to the very top of crime writing. It is taut and well-plotted, and it beautifully evokes the Montana scenery. Best of all, the characters are ambiguous. They lack the black-and-white shadings of self-righteous zeal or unalloyed evil that had come to typify Burke's books.
Billy Bob Holland is continually wrong-footed by the actions of his psycopathic nemesis Wyatt Dixon, who claims to have undergone a spiritual rebirth while in jail; and he finds himself unable to predict the behaviour of a local cop who blames the unravelling of his life on a troubled Native American named Johnny American Horse. Horse - a descendant of Crazy Horse - is in a relationship with the daughter of a US Senator, and so already on a collision course with the establishment; he then blunders into deeper and deeper trouble, and finds that he has added a powerful global corporation to his list of enemies.
Holland's sleepy backwood town in Montana suddenly finds itself attracting contract killers and even the FBI, and the body count soon starts to rise. Holland's dilemma is whether he should follow his habit and deal swift and violent justice, or whether he dare put his trust in the better side of the flawed and complex characters that have invaded his world.
This is a satisfying book and a compelling read. Burke is so much better than any other crime write alive that it's a mistake to bracket him in this category at all. And even by his own high standards, this book marks his return to top form.
Seldom has a violent mystery story attacked the question of human potential to do good or evil as powerfully as "In the Moon of Red Ponies" does. In addressing the question so well, Mr. Burke has some startling answers that will surprise many readers. In particular, the challenge of how best to deal with evil doers is addressed in many dimensions . . . suggesting a difficult path for those who wish to do the right thing. Except for a slow and wandering beginning, this book would be an outstanding one. As it is, this book saves the Billy Bob Holland series from the disaster of the last novel in the series, Bitterroot.
Billy Bob Holland is living in Montana now and trying to solve problems through the law rather than with his gun as he often did as a Texas Ranger. He finds himself helping out those who are underdogs, and naturally cannot refuse Johnny American Horse, a Native American whose forebearers include Crazy Horse. Johnny hears voices, sees visions and has a continuing connection into the spiritual world. He's very brave, trusting and a hard worker. Johnny has also attracted the affections of Amber Finley, the beautiful, brilliant and reckless daughter of a U.S. senator. Soon, hit men are trying to kill Johnny, the senator is trying to stop a possible marriage and half of the police force is out to find Johnny.
Against this backdrop, Billy Bob finds it more than distracting when a procedural error in his trial means that his arch enemy, Wyatt Dixon, is released from prison and wants to develop a close and personal relationship with Billy Bob and his wife, Temple, whom Wyatt helped bury alive in the last novel. Wyatt claims to have found the Lord and wants to do the right thing. He also swigs an evil-smelling potion that's supposed to help him behave.
At the same time, there's a break-in at a local company that does agricultural research . . . and someone wants what has been taken back in the worst way.
Billy Bob finds himself fighting for his very soul as well as the safety of his family. What is the right thing to do?
Others in the story find themselves facing the same question, including Johnny, Amber, a local police detective (Darrel McComb), Seth Masterson (an FBI agent) and Johnny's friends. Each of their answers differs and their lives are profoundly affected as a result.
The evil doers are a pretty nasty bunch. You will enjoy hating them.
Those who are troubled by the danger to individual freedom from the Patriot Act will enjoy how the book develops.
The book has two flaws that it did not quite recover from. First, the beginning . . . although filled with dynamite scenes . . . seems to wander aimlessly. Be patient. The story eventually gels and becomes quite interesting to follow. Second, if a convicted felon has the conviction overturned for a procedural error, the state can retry that felon. Since the error in Wyatt Dixon's trial was peripheral to the case, any prosecutor would have retried the case. Why didn't this happen in the story? No explanation is given.
The book ends on an interesting note as the results of uncovering the wrongs have unexpected consequences. Should we do the right thing because good consequences . . . or because we should do the right thing? Mr. Burke makes that answer painfully clear in the ending.
on 25 December 2004
A beautifully written book with smart dialogue and larger than life characters. The descriptions of the Montana landscape not only allow you to imagine this place but enables you to see and smell the rivers, trees and countryside. It gives insight into the lives, past and present, of native Americans and just how difficult it is to catch the very rich "bad boys". Mr. Burke uses the English language to paint wonderful pictures. He is an artist and his talents are streets ahead of those of the average American crime fiction writer.
I am not a big fan of crime stories but this kept me interested all the way through. The writing is gritty, the dialogue snappy, and the commentary intelligent. The main characters are an interesting mix of shades, not simplistic crusaders for virtue sacrificing personal interests for justice. (It was perhaps unnecessary for the author to spell this out with an explicit comparison between his story and inferior crime dramas which are all about good versus evil).
It is interesting that one reviewer said that this novel corrects a previous fault in which the author used too many plot twists. I haven't read anything else by Burke but this is exactly the criticism I would have made of this novel.
There are a few signs that the book was written hurriedly. He gives an unusual metaphor for someone's breathing, then repeats it a few pages later, almost certainly having forgotten he had just used it. There is also a chapter which ends with a comment by Holland's wife demonstrating her quality. If he had stopped to think, he would have ended the chapter there instead of adding a corny remark: she's worth her weight in gold (I don't remember the exact remark, but it was of that nature).
So for me it is a 4 star novel. However, it is an excellent read and I have no quibble with those who don't care about these little points and give it 5.
This is the first novel I have read by Burke and overall I was impressed by the characters and the plot. It certainly made me want to read more by this author.
One word of warning, however. The style is undeniably American and so certain passages are quite difficult to read and need deep concentration due to a certain slang style adopted by the author which rather suggests that you know what he is talking about.
That said it doesn't detract too much from the power of the book.
The best so far of Burke's Billy Bob Holland novels, indeed this is a better book than the last Robicheaux - 'Last Car to Elysian Fields'. Dark, sinuous and beguiling this is Burke back near his best. Vivid characterisation and deft plotting all contribute to wonderful effect.
A minor classic from a unique author.