My daughter, a voracious and eclectic reader, introduced me to James Lee Burke. He is a prolific writer who has a way with words. His peers agree, having named him Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and winner of two prestigious Edgar Awards. Burke’s skill with prose in 2014’s “Wayfaring Stranger” reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” with the same command of description, characters, and dialog. Burke is also the creator of David Robicheaux, a fictional Louisiana lawman with fluid ethics and an alcohol problem.
“Wayfaring Stranger” begins in the Dust Bowl years with an encounter between his teen-aged protagonist, Weldon Holland, and the infamous Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The chance meeting is based on a real event when the criminal pair was surprised at a hideout by a boy. In Burke’s telling young Holland is smitten with Bonnie before the outlaws are driven away at gunpoint by his grandfather, an ancient Texas Ranger. Fatally ambushed in 1934, the outlaw lovers reappear throughout the novel in the older Holland’s life. Trust me. It’s the author’s descriptions and colorful dialog—along with a cast of memorable characters: a fellow soldier in the Ardennes, corrupt lawmen, larger than life oilmen, roughnecks, wealthy vindictive Texans, lecherous Hollywood types and a long-lasting love between Holland and a Holocaust survivor that makes it work. I include an excerpt from Burke’s “Wayfaring Stranger” to whet your appetite.
“The party at the hotel at the bottom of South Main Street might have been called grandiose and vulgar, but in its way it reflected the times in which we lived. Inside its crassness was a kind of meretricious innocence, one you might associate with a nation’s inception or perhaps its demise, like the twilight of the gods or an antebellum vision borrowed from the world of Margaret Mitchell.”