In 1970, writer James Lee Burke published “To The Bright and Shining Sun,” a coming-of-age novel set in eastern Kentucky about a young miner torn between his family ties in the mountains and the lure of life in the big city. Although Burke was born in Houston and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, he had no problem delivering a highly readable novel set in Kentucky, as at one point he had been a Job Corps instructor in the Bluegrass State.
I remember reading and reviewing that 1970 book. I wish I could remember what I said in my review. (Alas, I’ve been unable to turn up a copy of it in what I laughingly call my “archives.”) I hope I used that review to predict great things from Burke in the future, as that certainly proved to be the case.
Burke likes to tell of how his first mystery novel, “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” was rejected 111 times before being published by Louisiana State University Press. Eventually it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Today, Burke is a popular — and prolific — mystery writer. He’s authored 39 novels and two short story collections. He’s perhaps best known for his best-selling novels starring former New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. But his latest book, “Another Kind of Eden,” (Simon & Schuster, $27) is the 11th entry in a long-running series starring the Holland family.
Set in 1962 in Colorado, it’s narrated by Aaron Holland Broussard, a young would-be novelist who, like Burke, has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. Aaron is a drifter who rolls out of a railroad freight car and into a job as a day laborer on a big farm near the New Mexico border.
Aaron has lost a teaching job and is carrying around the tattered manuscript of “a novel that’s been rejected all over New York.” He suffers bloody nightmares from his combat experience in Korea (what today would be called PTSD. He is, in short, a troubled soul who has no business falling in love but nonetheless starts a relationship with a gorgeous young woman who’s already involved with a no-good college professor who’s also a drug dealer. Not surprisingly, Aaron soon finds himself caught in a swirl of drug-fueled trouble.
If you’ve read any of Burke’s books, you know he has a signature style that includes elements of horror and the supernatural. As you read along his gritty, brooding mystery seems straightforward enough and then — WHAM! — out of nowhere, you find you’ve been plunged into a nightmarish scene that reads like Stephen King on steroids. (For his part, King says he’s a big fan of Burke’s work.)
The beautiful Colorado landscape Burke describes is Eden-like but, as Aaron discovers, it’s a hellscape of murdered women, cults and mysterious forces that may not be of this world.