James Lee Burke dips back to the Dust Bowl and World War II in his latest novel, which opens with 16-year-old Weldon Avery Holland’s brief but memorable encounter with infamous bank robbers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. “Pretend we came with the dust and went with the wind,” Bonnie advises him. Instead, he winds up planting a bullet in the rear window of their Chevrolet.
Holland becomes a second lieutenant in World War II, and barely escapes the Battle of the Bulge with his sergeant, Hershel Pine, “a yeoman and a solid fellow, with far more humanity in him than he is aware of.” They trudge across an apocalyptic landscape, trapped behind enemy lines, and rescue a young Jewish woman, Rosita Lowenstein, from the remains of an extermination camp.
When the war ends, the trio remains bound together by love and loyalty: Weldon and Rosita as husband and wife, and Hershel as partner in a company that crafts pipelines, using German technology. Business booms as gas and oil production take off in Texas and Louisiana, but a sinister cabal tries to undermine their reputations and livelihoods. Rosita is branded a communist; a Hollywood producer seduces Hershel’s wife; and the two men’s war records come into question.
Peacetime America, post-WWII, is hardly peaceful in Burke’s latest. But unlike his usual array of malevolent characters, the interplay between good and evil is tucked away, harbored by wealth, fueled by jealousy and anti-Semitism. “It’s the way of the world,” says financier and aviator Roy Wiseheart. ”We’re wayfaring strangers. We’re born alone, we die alone.”
For the implacably honest Holland and his remarkable Rosita, the legend of Bonnie and Clyde comes full circle. This rich and robust story careens through a pivotal time in history with the author’s customary insight and storytelling prowess intact.
“If I could draw any conclusion about the long, depressing slog of human progress,” reflects the narrator, “it’s the possibility that unseen elements lie just on the other side of the physical universe, and that somehow we’re actors on the stage of the Globe …”
Kirkus Review finds in the story “a new spaciousness married to his fine-tuned sense of retribution.”
Burke, who lives in Missoula, has accrued two Edgar Awards during his lengthy career and was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
– Kristi Niemeyer