House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke
Hackberry Holland is a man out of his time. He was a Texas Ranger, involved in many gun battles with the Mexican Army as well as the indigenous people of North America. But it’s 1918 and time has moved on. The old ways employed by men like Hackberry are no longer OK. He has become an anachronism.
(Spoilers follow) This story begins in Mexico in 1916, when we meet a bedraggled Hackberry as he escapes the clutches of the Mexican military. He manages to make it to an isolated bordello run by the enigmatic Beatrice DeMolay, a beautiful European Madame. Beatrice sees something in Holland that he doesn’t. Although she doesn’t like him very much, she recognizes that he’s a man who gets things done, and he’s not entirely beyond redemption. She needs someone like that.
Hackberry is searching for his estranged son, Ishmael, a captain in the US cavalry who was part of an incursion south of the border. Holland finds four black men from Ishmael’s solely black regiment, brutalized and hanged by some Mexican soldiers. Hackberry is not impressed.
After a little gun play, de rigeur for Holland the Elder, the Texas Ranger deals with the Mexicans before pilfering a wagon in their possession. He removes an artifact from it before destroying the rest of the contents, weapons destined for crooked Mexican soldiers. All of that which he destroyed belonged to the mysterious and thoroughly evil, Arnold Beckman, an Austrian arms dealer who does not tolerate interference in his affairs. Beckman is someone who enjoys torture and thrives on the pain of others, kinda like an early Donald Trump, perhaps?
The story then sweeps back to 1891 when we encounter Hackberry as a fully fledged Ranger. At this point in his turbulent life, he’s married to and separated from Maggie Bassett. Maggie is crazy. It might just be this unfortunate quality that first drew Holland to her. She was once a prostitute as well as a squeeze for The Sundance Kid. Her associations with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang are a source of conflict with Holland, a reasonably traditional man. But Maggie is like an addiction to Hackberry and she knows it.
Into the scene steps the third woman in Hackberry’s life, Ruby Dansen. She is beautiful, brave, intelligent and determined. She is also too good for Holland yet he persuades her to be his common-in-law wife as he remains wed to a stubborn Maggie who won’t grant him a divorce. Maggie wants her share of his land. Ruby and Holland build a life together and have one child, their beloved son, Ishmael. But Holland has issues and Ruby does too. She begins an affair with a young preacher and eventually leaves Hackberry taking their son with her. Holland tries to find her but to no avail. As he’s a great Texas Ranger, he can’t have tried too hard.
Some months pass and Ruby has fallen on hard times. Her preacher-man has died and she reaches out to Hackberry who is relieved to hear from her again. However, by this time Maggie has managed to reenter Holland’s life, taking advantage of his vulnerable emotional state. As Hackberry goes to meet his son, he little realizes the lengths that the manipulative Maggie will go to in order to keep her man and his money. Hackberry is again separated from Ishmael and Ruby and loses them entirely this time.
On we go to 1918 and the First World War is drawing to a close. Ishmael is there and in the trenches. During the Battle of the Marne, he receives severe injuries but does survive. It’s during his recuperation in Denver that Maggie Bassett first introduces herself to him. She has since divorced Hackberry, taking half of his property, and set herself up in a shaky partnership with none other than Arnold Beckman. Ishmael is, like his father before him, vulnerable to the still beautiful Maggie’s approaches and finds himself falling under her spell. The younger Holland is oblivious to just how devious this particular woman can be. It’s not long until she spirits him away from his mother who is desperate to bring him back to full health.
Ruby is frantic with worry. Ishmael is gone and is still not fully recovered. She suspects that he’s also addicted to painkillers, a weakness that Maggie and her business partner, Beckman, exploit mercilessly. When asked, Maggie won’t or can’t reveal where Ishmael is now being held captive by Beckman who still wants his artifact, and will go through Ishmael to get it from Hackberry. And so it is that Ruby again reaches out to the father of her child, and the search for Ishmael begins. Suddenly, Holland’s old approach to law enforcement, much of which involves great levels of violence, is needed. But can he rescue Ishmael whilst keeping Beckman’s filthy hands off the artifact, which he now knows to be the Holy Grail?
House of the Rising Sun is a wonderful saga. As mentioned, it stretches from Mexico in the late nineteenth century to up to 1918 San Antonio, Texas. It covers the changes that take place during that time. As lawmen become more heavily regulated, we can see how Hackberry just does not fit. Horses are traded for motor cars.
The story is many things. It’s a tragedy as devoted parent, Holland, loses touch with his son, a boy who idolizes his father. Ishmael suffers greatly at what he grows up to believe was his father’s abandonment. It’s also a romance. Ruby and Hackberry do love one another, but timing is everything and theirs was not good. We also get a lesson in psychology as Maggie Bassett plays upon people’s weaknesses to get her self-serving way.
This novel, whilst grounded firmly in real terms, is also wedded to the idea of the supernatural. The artifact is, as stated, believed to he the Holy Grail, cue the Knights who say Ni! Beatrice DeMolay’s ancestor is said to be the crusader who brought the cup of Christ from the Middle East. Beatrice looks upon Hackberry as a modern cowboy-crusader, capable of defeating Beckman. There are also references to Beckman, or someone identical to him, having lived in previous eras where his image was captured. These are not crucial plot points. They do, however, give an intriguing suggestion of something more than the norm.
James Lee Burke has a welcome habit of making such suggestions of the supernatural in his books. He appears to have little fear of introducing this element into stories that would stand perfectly well without it. Rebel Voice finds his approach admirable.
House of the Rising Sun is not without its flaws, some of which surround Hackberry’s behaviour and thought processes. Often his conduct feels incomplete and in need of adjustment. It can be frustrating to read. Yet, by and large, the characters are consistent and attractive. The settings are vivid and the entire persona of the book is appealing. There will be a melee of emotions raised when reading this tale, and it is a very well-told story with plenty of twists. The references to actual historical figures are also a welcome bonus and add greater authenticity to the overall portrayal of a land and society in flux.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. This is another good example of the magic of James Lee Burke. He is a poet who chooses prose as his medium and his writing shows it. House of the Rising Sun is a well-paced story with something for everyone. Recommended reading.
The title photograph is of the actual Wild Bunch, mentioned in the novel. From left to right, seated, is Harry A. Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid), Ben Kilpatrick (The Tall Texan), Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy). Standing from left to right, Harvey Logan (probably the most dangerous of the gang) and Will Carver.