James Lee Burke

Feast Day of Fools

"When you crack open the spine of a James Lee Burke novel you are never in doubt that you are in for something special."


Sheriff Hackberry Holland patrols a small Southwest Texas border town with a deep respect for the citizens in his care. Still mourning the loss of his wife, and locked in an almost-romance with his Deputy Pam Tibbs, a woman many decades his junior, Hackberry feeds off of the deeds of evil men to keep his own demons at bay.

When alcoholic ex-boxer Danny Boy Lorca witnesses a man tortured to death in the desert and reports it, Hack's investigation to the home of Anton Ling, a regal, mysterious Chinese woman whom the locals refer to as La Magdalena and who is known for sheltering illegals. Ling denies having seen the victims or perpetrators, but there is something in her demeanour and aristocratic beauty that compels Hackberry to return to her home again and again as the investigation unfolds. Could it be that the Sheriff is so taken in by this creature who reminds him of his deceased wife, that he would ignore the possibility that she is just as dangerous as the men she harbours?

The danger in the desert increases tenfold with the return of serial murderer, Preacher Jack Collins. Presumed dead at the close of 'Rain Gods', Preacher Jack has re-emerged with a calm, single-minded zeal for killing which is more terrifying than the muzzle flash of his signature machine gun. But this time he and Sheriff Holland share a common enemy.

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When you crack open the spine of a James Lee Burke novel you are never in doubt that you are in for something special. The man's astonishing back catalogue stretches behind him with a staggering consistency of quality that promises much of the each next offering. And does 'Feast Day of Fools' measure up? Unquestionably. There is richness to this man's writing that cannot fail to delight. He specialises in imbuing his characters with certainty of action, even while their motives are conflicted and he is the master of an oblique dialogue that in the hands of someone less skilled would serve only to confuse, but with Burke it never fails to enlighten and engage. His set pieces are sharp and effective and his prose swoops and soars with a lyricism that would make a poet's heart ache with envy. The plot continues to drive you forward but you force yourself to slow down: to savour the quality of the words arranged on the page. Character is central to every one of James Lee Burke's novels and the central character here is one Hack Holland, a septuagenarian officer of the law whose mind is stuck in a past war, and the deeds this drove him to, while in the present he sets out to atone with a single-minded zeal afforded only to the convert. That biblical need to set things right even extends to the conflicted killer, Jack Collins, arguably one of the most arresting degenerates JLB has ever concocted. The scenes where these two men face off to each other spark off the page and give more thrill and satisfaction than even the most finely cooked feast day meal. The remaining characters are no ciphers either. All have their purpose and all have a depth and contradiction that fascinates. We have a mysterious Chinese woman who is a former CIA agent offering a route of safe passage to illegal immigrants, a Russian pornographer, Mexican drug-dealers and an ex-government employee with dangerous secrets to sell. Even the Texan landscape becomes like another character when given light and shade by the words of the author. It was no accident that I used the word “biblical” in an earlier statement of this review, for this is feeling that one leaves this work with: there is an epic otherness to the book that only this particular word will suffice. 'Feast Day of Fools' is a book that will undoubtedly reward further study, so once you've satisfied your urge to know how it all worked out, set it aside for when you have a quieter time, read again and savour.

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