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A NOVEL BY ‘Tim Al I I 4010/11tAb I \\UAW past. Is that boy he’s going to defend against the murder charge really his illegitimate son? Who else knows it? Why doesn’t he acknowledge the boy? How did Holland come to kill his best friend and, if it was an accident, why can’t he put it behind him? Why did he give up being a prosecutor? All these questions arise in the first few pages, and Burke delivers on their promise by gradually revealing to us a complex and likable character. Burke’s supporting characters are also distinctive and well-developed \(the men more than the women, who tend to be a bit skillful at creating good people who are riddled with faults, and very wicked people who have some endearing traits. For example, Vernon Smothers, who has raised Burke’s son Lucas, has continually belittled and bullied the boy, but comes through as loyal and loving in spite of his harshness. S o,, why, when this writer does so much so well, don’t I love this book? Well, there’s the problem of the plot. It begins promisingly enough, as Holland takes on the defense of Lucas Smothers, and investigates what really happened the night Roseanne Hazlitt was raped and beaten to death. But this main line quickly meanders off into some very convoluted sub-plots, involving federal drug agents \(one of whom Holland on the loose \(one of whom may be Holkillings in this small town, and nearly everyone gets threatened and beat up. And amazing coincidences pop up: a Mexican drug agent working on a current case turns out to have been involved in Holland’s accidental shooting of his best friend years earlier; one of the maniacal killers turns out to have been responsible for Holland’s father’s death, decades before. By the end of the book, when we finally find out who killed Roseanne Hazlitt, we’ve lost track of the thread and have no idea how Hol land has figured it out. These violent events and coincidences accumulate without any of them getting developed in a satisfying way. It becomes too much, too extreme, too over-the-top, for a book that wants to lay claim to realism. It is also bothersome that in this new series Burke has created a character who is essentially a clone of Dave Robicheaux from his old series. The locale has changed, and some of the biographical details, but go an eighth of an inch below the skin and Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland are the same man. Both are ex-cops haunted by past mistakes that caused the deaths of loved ones. Both struggle against their violent impulses, but behave in ways calculated to provoke violence in others. Both take comfort in the details of domestic routine, both see ghosts, both even adopt children from minority ethnic groups. It may be unfair to complain about this similarity, since most writers, even when they set out to do something new and different, seem destined to revisit the same territory over and over. But, to regular Burke readers, this all very familiar territory indeed. This novel brings up another old dilemma for me: the flaw that is at the heart of most crime novels, the ones I read and the ones I write. In the real world the kind of danger and violence that occurs in these novels would quickly drive real people out of town with their loved ones safely in tow. But in Cimarron Rose, Billy Bob Holland, finding himself surrounded by psychopathic killers, psychotic teen-agers, and hostile federal agents, takes only perfunctory precautions even when his horse is maimed, the little boy he takes care of is threatened, he himself is beaten and nearly has his ears cut off. None of this seems to give him pause; he continues to needle and insult everyone in his path without much thought to anyone’s safety. There’s at least one man in this book the father of suspect Bunny Vogel who, when he is threatened and nose-twisted by the garishly psychopathic Garland T. Moon, hurries off to visit his mother in Corpus, and advises his son to do the same. Good advice. But if everyone in crime novels took that advice, the town would be deserted long before the resolution of the plot. Perhaps those of us addicted to crime stories need to accept this as a necessary convention and quit quibbling. As one of Burke’s characters in the book says about another matter, “It’s like going to a whorehouse and complaining that it’s full of whores.” In spite of my reservations about Cimarron Rose, I’m glad James Lee Burke is turning his considerable talents to Texas, and I will probably read the next one, just as I have read the entire Dave Robicheaux series, which offers basically the same frustrations and delights. Austin writer Mary Willis Walker is the author of several novels, most recently Under the Beetle’s Cellar. DECEMBER 19, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23