Cimarron Rose by James Lee Burke
This is the first book in the highly popular Billy Bob Holland series, set in the Texas borderlands in contemporary times.
Ole Billy Bob is a defence lawyer, once a public prosecutor, once a Texas Ranger. He has a tendency to carry his Ranger skills and attitudes into his professional life as a legal advocate. That means that Billy Bob occasionally can’t contain himself, and kicks ass. He also continually wrestles with the fact that he accidentally shot and killed his best friend and fellow Ranger, LQ Navarro, when both were hunting drug runners on the Mexican border.
In the small town of Deaf Smith, Texas, 19 years old Lucas Smothers is arrested for the rape and murder of a troubled young woman. Lucas’ father, Vernon, leases land from Billy Bob, yet the two men share a bad history. Our feisty lawyer might well be Lucas’ real dad. Vernon still comes to Billy Bob for help for Lucas though, as it appears that the local cops have already tried and convicted the young man. Although Billy Bob succeeds in getting bail for Lucas, the problems begin to mount up.
As Billy Bob investigates the case, he pulls strongly on the fetid threads that make up local society. The Vanzandt family are one of the monied elite in the region, part of a corrupted clique who frequent country clubs and shoot skeet for relaxation. The wayward son of the clan, Darl, is increasingly errant in his behaviour and crops up repeatedly in Billy Bob’s inquiry, as do a number of other morally questionable young men and women, all of whom know Lucas. Billy Bob really starts to put a lot of Roman noses out of joint. Go Billy Bob.
To compound matters, Lucas has overheard two psychopaths in prison talking about a recent murder which one of them committed. One psycho escapes custody and the other is released for a lack of evidence, and Lucas is now a witness and in some really deep doo doo, as is his lawyer and possible bio-da.
Cimarron Rose is a delight. It won the Edgar Award in 1997, the year of its release, and it’s easy to see why. Burke is a master at weaving any number of juicy strands together in an effortless manner. In this particular offering, we not only have the issues of Lucas and his two serious problems, namely facing criminal charges as well being targeted by his former cellie neighbour, G.T. Moon, we also find Billy Bob embroiled in a tempestuous three-way romance with his private investigator and good friend, Temple Carrol, as well as indulging in some sweaty bump and grind with Sheriff’s deputy, Mary Beth Sweeney, who may be more than she seems both in and out of the sack.
Throw in Pete, the young neglected Mexican boy who Billy Bob practically adopts, the Lucas-Billy Bob relationship, a group of over-zealous DEA agents who have developed a dislike of Holland, a Mexican federal agent who’s a right nasty piece of work, and some Italian mafiosos, and you get all the ingredients of a typically great James Lee Burke novel.
And I still haven’t covered the sub-plot from whence the novel’s title came. We are introduced throughout to Sam Holland’s journal. Sam was Billy Bob’s great-grandpa, and a wildman turned preacher in the late 19th century west. Billy Bob reads his ancestor’s accounts of life during those lawless times and his encounter with one of the Dalton-Doolin gang, a beauty who he refers to as the Cimarron Rose – the Cimarron being the river along which the gang hide out. It’s intriguing and educational stuff.
One other notable aspect of this book is the presence of LQ Navarro. Although dead, LQ remains with Billy Bob as a ghost dispensing advice and warnings. Billy Bob speaks regularly with LQ. Billy Bob has guns.
The plot is fast and beautiful. It twists one way and then the other leaving the reader wondering who exactly raped and murdered the young woman. Nothing can be taken for granted. It’s a masterful story-line, masterfully executed.
The settings are, as always with Burke novels, glorious. The reader will want to find Deaf Smith, Texas – or a place like it – and spend the weekend. Hopefully, the reader will not want to speak with dead people and smuggle drugs but hey, who knows?
This novel is like the love-child of John Grisham and Tom Clancy, with legalities being combined with explosions, gun-fights and punch-ups. It has elements reminiscent of other authors. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is here when Billy Bob lassos a man and then beats the unholy shit out of him (fella deserved it). Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas series has a similar feature where Odd continually speaks with dead people, most notably Elvis – who’s not really dead you know, but was known to have been a turnip farmer in County Mayo, until his retirement that is. He’s now in a nursing home in Ballina.
Cimarron Rose is highly entertaining and consistent throughout. The characters are many and interesting. It’s a book that will grip you by your gametes and not let go until you finish with your business with Billy Bob. Don’t miss it.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended.
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For Rebel Voice‘s review of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, please click here: