The publication of a new James Lee Burke novel is always cause for celebration. I’ve been reading and collecting Burke for decades—an eye-opening proposition, as he recently marked the release of his fortieth book. Burke is perhaps best known for his series of Dave Robicheaux novels (including such titles as A Stained White Radiance, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Dixie City Jam, Cadillac Jukebox, and about twenty others), which are beautifully written detective novels largely set in Louisiana. These books dwell on police detective Robicheaux’s righteous quests for justice, which are often spiritual in their breadth and always sublime in their language. Robicheaux is a complex, flawed, but ultimately heroic character acting in a vivid, sumptuous setting filled with serial killers and sexual predators and other assorted monsters.
But Burke has other series and standalone novels going on, too, and one of those series is the historical Holland family saga, taking place in the 1960s American southwest. The previous books in this series are Wayfaring Stranger, House of the Rising Sun, and The Jealous Kind, and they form a loose, generational look at the Hollands and mid-century America. This latest book, Another Kind of Eden, more directly follows The Jealous Kind and its focus on drifting novelist Aaron Holland, but this book also works as a standalone work. The story begins with Aaron working on a farm in southern Colorado, where he’s almost immediately implicated by sinister sorts in a local crime. Aaron has also just fallen for local artist Joanne McDuffy, but that would-be romance is complicated by the presence of a shady professor. Increasingly enmeshed in the town’s seemy underbelly, Aaron finds himself in a fight for his own survival.
Aaron’s story is all wrapped up in the politics of ’60s, subtly mirroring some of the ghastliness we’re seeing today, embodied in local authoritarian figures and shady organizations, as well as the plight of the downtrodden beneath the boot of “law and order.” Plus, there’s the infiltration of a school bus full of strangely monstrous druggies, as well as weird sex vibes from the wife of Aaron’s employer, and the suggestion of father-son abuse among the local law enforcement. If the book has a flaw, it’s in its ending, which goes for an almost deus ex machina supernatural wrap-up that brings all the assorted characters together for a violent end that doesn’t entirely fit with the promise of the early chapters.
Still, the entirety of Another Kind of Eden has an mystic, often mythic, use of language that’s at once simple and so gorgeous that you want to read passages aloud. You feel the settings—the landscape, the weather, the quality of the light—as surely as you’re there. You might call Burke’s use of language poetic, as it’s certainly that, but it’s also precise, not a word wasted. Another Kind of Eden is a good, if a bit oddball addition to the Burke bibliography, and perhaps even a good starting point if you haven’t dived in yet. It’s relatively short and sweet, and the prose is quite readable. Now is as good an opportunity as any to see what all the fuss is about regarding James Lee Burke. The first two acts pull you in seductively, and even if the ending is not entirely earned, this book is a fine way to pass the time.