Burke’s blend of thriller plot and atmospheric prose succeeds again

Many devotees of award-winning Louisiana author James Lee Burke cite his Dave Robicheux crime fiction books as his best series

With his new Holland family novel, “Wayfaring Stranger,” however, Burke has perhaps outdone himself in imbuing a spell-binding thriller plot with unmatched atmospheric prose and an unexpected morality tale that will leave the reader pondering the meaning of this dark story well into the night.

As a longtime Robicheaux fan, I hesitated to delve into this book, but ultimately chose to purchase the audio book if for no other reason than to hear actor Will Patton read it in his inimitable gruff-yet-emotionally compelling style. This proved the wisest of decisions.

Burke has demonstrated that he can bring everything from cop thrillers to wild west tales to their highest heights, but here he achieves something even more profound — a moral tale that ranks among those that American authors have yet to produce.

Weldon Holland encounters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in his youth, then shortly thereafter survives the Battle of the Bulge, saving his sergeant Hershel Pine and rescuing a Spanish prisoner, Rosita Lowenstein, from a Nazi concentration camp.

He then marries Rosita and partners with Hershel to get in on the ground floor of the nascent 1950s Texas and Louisiana oil industry.

In so doing, he encounters evil that is as omnipresent as was Hitler’s SS in Germany, but as Holland notes, is over here, and uses money and political influence to crush business competitors and destroy innocent lives.

When Weldon rebuffs Texas millionaire oil man Dalton Wiseheart’s attempt to purchase his Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, Wiseheart sets out to destroy Weldon, through his wife, Rosita.

Dalton’s son, Roy, seduces Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, a budding Hollywood superstar with a penchant for straying.

What began as an ode to 1930’s American innocence and the country’s worthy role in saving the world from totalitarianism soon morphs into a dark tale about how the wealthy and powerful few subvert the democratic process with a perverse viciousness not entirely dissimilar to that employed by Hitler and his demonic minions.

This increasingly dark and gut-wrenching tale is relieved by Burke’s lyrical prose, his clever use of allegory throughout the book, and his timely interspersing of humor at unexpected moments.

Musing on the character of his former wartime commander turned budding capitalist, “dangerous idiot” Major Fancher, Weldon wryly observes that “the German army has been trying to find him for years to award him the Iron Cross.”

The Robicheux fan will find ensconced in Burke’s pages the same flamboyant characters populating all of his stories set in the South and West, and even a familiar war veteran hero who resorts to violence and an unerring faith in providence and the goodness of regular people when faced with ultimate evil. The final chase scene unfolding a la Barrow gang escapades through the Texas back country brings a satisfying and surprising climax to one of Burke’s finest tales to date.

However, I highly recommend purchasing the audio CD of “Wayfaring Stranger,” as the only thing capable of improving on Burke’s magnificent literary style is the reading of it by Will Patton, easily one of the greatest readers of American fiction since the oft-awarded Grover Gardner, and whose vocal talents prove the ideal match for Burke’s earthy, yet at times, transcendental prose.

‘Wayfaring Stranger: A Holland Family Novel’

By James Lee Burke; 448 pages; Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (July 15, 2014)