Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Billy Bob Holland novels of James Lee Burke


Well here we are back for an oil change and we're sticking with James Lee Burke, only this time it's his western character, name of Billy Bob Holland. But look, I have to warn you, this can be heavy duty stuff - SAE 80w90 gear box oil to cushion some heavy haulage.

The West has been a mythical landscape for American books and films for more than a century, and these novels continue firmly in that tradition; just like the Overflow or the Snowy for Australians.

Reminds me of the story Pa Russell used to tell when he was droving cattle up the Paroo one year, that's on the Overflow you know, where Clancy who was immortalised twice by Banjo Patterson come from. Must have been some time in the early 20s just after Pop come back from the war. It's around sundown and he sees a campfire in the distance so he rides over and there's this swagman with a red kelpie sitting at a tree stump with a chess board between them.
"How are you goin'" says Pa.
"Alright," says the swaggie, concentrating on the game.
"You must have a pretty smart dog there," comments Pa.
"What d'yer mean?" says the swaggie, looking up indignantly, "I win just as often as he does."
Yeah, they're a funny lot up that way, and I don't mean just the dogs.

Anyway back to Billy Bob, the one-time Texan Ranger turned PI, the settings are Texas and Montana, the latter affording some nice fly fishing action. Novels featuring Billy Bob so far are:

Cimarron Rose (1997)
Heartwood (1999
Bitterroot (2001)
In the Moon of Red Ponies (2004)

This extract is from the opening of Heartwood and touches on the back story of L.Q. Navarro, Billy Bob's former partner in the Texas Rangers whose ghost still visits him, and a whole lot more besides.


"It would be easy to say we resented Earl Deitrich because he was rich. Maybe to a degree we did. He grew up in River Oaks, down in Houston, in an enormous white mansion set up on a hillock surrounded by shade trees. Its size and seclusion separated it even from the Midas levels of wealth that characterized his few neighbors. But our problem with him was not simply his money.
He was an officer, on leave from the army, when he came to the town of Deaf Smith, up in the Texas hill country, where the working classes wrestled drill bits and waited tables and the new rich chewed on toothpicks at the country club. He used his wealth to hold up a mirror to our inadequacies and take Peggy Jean Murphy from our midst, then brought her back to us as his wife and possession, almost as though she were on display.
Peggy Jean Murphy, who was heart-breakingly beautiful, who lived in our dreams, who commanded such inclusive respect the roughest kids in the West End dared not make a loose remark about her lest they be punched senseless by their own kind.
Earl Deitrich made us realize that our moments on the dance floor with her at high school proms and the romantic fantasies we entertained about marriage to her had always been the vanity of blue-collar kids who had never been in the running at all. Maybe even the high school quarterback she'd loved before he'd been drafted and killed on the Mekong had not been in the running, either.
But that was a long time ago. I tried not to think about Peggy Jean anymore. She and Earl lived abroad and in Montana much of the year and I didn't have occasion to see them, or to regret the decisions that led me into law enforcement on the border and the months of unrecorded and officially denied nocturnal raids into Coahuila, where a playing card emblazoned with the badge of the Texas Rangers was stuffed into the mouths of the dead.
But try as I might, I would never forget the spring afternoon when Peggy Jean got down from the back of my horse and walked with me into a woods above the river and allowed me to lose my virginity inside her.
When I rose from her hot body, her pale blue eyes were empty, staring at the clouds above the pine tops. I wanted her to say something, but she didn't.
'I don't guess I got a lot of experience at this,' I said.
She ran her hand down my arm and held my fingers. There were blades of grass on her shoulders and breasts.
'You were fine, Billy Bob,' she said.
Then I knew she had not made love to me but to a soldier who had died in Vietnam.
'You want to go to a movie tonight?' I asked.
'Maybe tomorrow,' she replied.
'I like you a whole lot. I know when you lose somebody, it takes a long—'
'We'd better go back now. We'll go to the movie tomorrow. I promise,' she said.
But no one competes well with ghosts. At least no one in our town did, not until Earl Deitrich arrived."


Not bad is it, but there's more. Just as he captures the Loiusiana setting in the Dave Robicheaux books and makes it integral to the action; in the Western books JLB writes lyrically of the landscape of the American mid-west and its people and captures the nuances of language beautifully. JLB's earlier novel with a Montana setting, the Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986), also deserves a mention here, not only because it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but because it shows the early development of his noir style in novel form. The protagonist is a young guitar player on parole and the Blues runs through this book like a hammered-on bass lick in a John Lee Hooker song. Or for that matter Johnny O'Keefe's left foot on stage at the Big Show in the Sydney Stadium concert October 1957, I remember I was with a girl called Sharon but that's another story.

James Lee Burke has been a prolific writer, who is probably now at the peak of his powers and only improves with age, so once you get hooked, well you can look forward to each book as the start of a new adventure.

Like arriving on a wilderness river maybe the upper Thredbo or the Snowy, it's Spring and the water is running high and ice cold against the granite boulders, the morning sun angles through the mist and reflects off the wings of mayfly hatching in the eddies, you set up the rod, thread line with cold fingers and tie on a Kosciusko dun, measure the back cast and flick out the fly into the bubble line, watch the leader straighten and mend line upstream with a quick twitch of the rod tip, there's the swirl of a big trout, you feel the rod flex as the line tightens and you are reconnected once more to the wilderness world of the ancestors, the shaman who takes on the identity of the animal spirits, and all other thoughts fall away...

Now while we're on the subject of hard living blokes, you might remember how I said I had to give up the smokes a while back. Well it's true and and I've never regretted it. You just think about - it's no use a bloke having a family if he's not there any more to look after them, it's a man's responsibility.

I've known some of these blokes who wouldn't give it up, I've been to their funerals, and let me tell you it's not a pretty site. Not only are they turning their wives and kids into widows and orphans, but they're missing out on a lot of good fishing time as well, either because they're too flaming sick or they karked it.

So get real and get the missus of them too if you have too, or so help me I'll come around to your place and put matters straight for you. Alright I'll stop now, read the books I mentioned and remember: in the Bush a bloke always shoots his own dog; in life a man takes responsibility for his actions and their consequences. One time I had to shoot a favourite dog after he bit a child, not his fault but there you are; think about it. So I'll leave you with that and it's hooroo from your mate Jacko until next time.

Friday, 12 September 2008

The Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke

G'day, it's your mate Jack Russell here again. Well I just got back from seeing the quack. Had me general checkup as well as the blokes special one in the trouser department. You know what that involves and if you're getting to be a codger like me, well you make sure you get one too. And there's no need to feel embarrassed or anything. The quack takes it in his stride because they're trained for it, and they cop a few quid as well. After all it's nothing compared to what the missus has to put up with. And it might mean you'll get a few more years of fishing you hadn't counted on, so that's a bonus. Here is some more information if you're interested.

Now listen, this bloke James Lee Burke is the dinkum oil and you can take my word on it. Why don't I start by quoting a few reviews.

"He writes explosively about crime and elegaically about America. And he does so with style and passion enough to turn admirers into addicts. Burke is the only author guaranteed to make me bolt meals and lose sleep. No one else in the business is writing fiction like this." Literary Review

"No one handles complex plots better than Burke; no one is better at creating characters, good, bad or evil and above all no one writes with such a sensuous appreciation of life, with so poetic yet meticulous observation of detail." London Evening Standard.

He's a yank writer but don't let that stop you because he's one of the best. That reminds me of the visiting Texan that Granddad Russel was taking for a ride around the property one day.
"So how big exactly is this here spread of yours Mr Russell?" says Tex.
"Well you'd have to ride all day to get to the boundary", says Pa.
"Hell" says the big feller, "On my spread I could ride all day and never reach the boundary".
"Yeah" says Pa, "I had a horse like that once".

Anyway back to the author review. The setting is Louisiana so the tucker is Cajun, and if you haven't tried it, you should get the Missus to cook some up. Or better still give it a go yourself because it's easy to cook - being based on barbecuing, smoking, grilling and one pot stews. All the stuff a bloke can cook, and the way JLB describes it, will have you licking your lips for some. Ingredients like fried oysters and shrimp in Poor boy sandwiches, that's what the yanks call prawns as you may know. As well as wild caught trout and redfish and hunted game, and catfish which they say can be an acquired taste, it's all stuff a bloke would recognise and know how to handle. Just skin 'em or scale 'em, gut 'em, chuck on some seasoning and on the barbie or in the smoker they go, no worries.

Now if you really get into these books you'll want to listen to some Cajun music as well and good stuff it is too. In fact Jolie Blon's Bounce illustrated here in one such. You might remember the live version by the Sir Douglas Quintet, an innovative late 60s band that incorporated Tex-Mex and Cajun styles into rock music, the Mendocino album is here in the shed somewhere, well worth a listen.

But it's not just tucker because the way JLB describes the swamps, the insects, the heat, the sunsets and sunrises, the smells of mud and rotting vegetation, the behaviour of fish and animals, there's fishing action too - you feel like you're right there and once that happens, well you're really reading. In fact the setting is so powerful in these stories that it becomes like another character that controls all others, bit like the drought does to us farmers and graziers.

Now the protagonist, that's the hero, is a feller name of Dave Robicheaux , he's a French Cajun and they're a people with a fascinating history. He's also a recovering alcoholic, a police detective, and a man with his own inner demons, and we've all had them at one time or another. And he's a bloke for whom the ghosts of the past are always present, which is a pretty accurate way of looking at life I reckon. Like when I'm replacing some old eaten out timber fence posts that granddad Russell split with his own hands and the sweat of his brow, or come across the lonely grave of some old fossiker out in the bush and it gives a feller pause to think.

Anyway Dave writes in the first person and you know how I like that in a book. But JLB has a way of overcoming the limitations of this style by slipping in linking passages of third person narrative that are so natural you don't even realise that it's not Dave talking. And if you're a student of language, well the dialogue is pure gold. And he can write a sentence too. But it's time I stopped rabbiting on and we hear from the man himself. This is from the opening of Jolie Blon's Bounce where he first meets Legion, his nemesis in several stories.

"Farther down Main were Hopkins and Railroad Avenues, like ancil­lary conduits into part of the town's history and geography that people did not talk about publicly. When I went to the icehouse on Saturday af­ternoons with my father, I would look furtively down Railroad at the rows of paintless cribs on each side of the train tracks and at the blowsy women who sat on the stoops, hung over, their knees apart under their loose cotton dresses, perhaps dipping beer out of a bucket two Negro boys carried on a broom handle from Hattie Fontenot's bar. I came to learn early on that no venal or meretricious enterprise ex­isted without a community's consent. I thought I understood the nature of evil. I learned at age twelve I did not.

My half brother, who was fifteen months younger than I, was named Jimmie Robicheaux. His mother was a prostitute in Abbeville, but he and I were raised together, largely by our father, known as Big Aldous, who was a trapper and commercial fisherman and offshore derrick man. As children Jimmie and I were inseparable. On summer evenings we used to go to the lighted ball games at City Park and slip into the serving lines at barbecues and crab boils at the open-air pavilions. Our larceny was of an innocent kind, I suppose, and we were quite proud of our­selves when we thought we had outsmarted the adult world. On a hot August night, with lightning rippling through the thunder-heads over the Gulf of Mexico, Jimmie and I were walking through a cluster of oak trees on the edge of the park when we saw an old Ford au­tomobile with two couples inside, one in the front seat, one in the back. We heard a woman moan, then her voice mount in volume and inten­sity. We stared openmouthed as we saw the woman's top half arch back­ward, her naked breasts lit by the glow from a picnic pavilion, her mouth wide with orgasm.

We started to change direction, but the woman was laughing now, her face sweaty and bright at the open window. "Hey, boy, you know what we been doin'? It make my pussy feel so good. Hey, come here, you. We been fuckin', boy," she said. It should have been over, a bad encounter with white trash, probably drunk, caught in barnyard copulation. But the real moment was just be­ginning. The man behind the steering wheel lit a cigarette, his face flar­ing like paste in the flame, then stepped out on the gravel. There were tattoos, like dark blue smears, inside his forearms. He used two fingers to lift the blade out of a pocketknife.

"You like to look t'rew people's windows?" he asked.
"No, sir," I said.
"They're just kids, Legion," the woman in back said, putting on her shirt.
"Maybe that's what they gonna always be," the man said. I had thought his words were intended simply to frighten us. But I could see his face clearly now, the hair combed back like black pitch, the narrow white face with vertical lines in it, the eyes that could look upon a child as the source of his rage against the universe.

Then Jimmie and I were running in the darkness, our hearts pound­ing, forever changed by the knowledge that the world contains pockets of evil that are as dark as the inside of a leather bag. Because my father was out of town, we ran all the way to the icehouse on Railroad Avenue, behind which was the lit and neatly tended house of Giro Shanahan, the only man my father ever spoke of with total ad­miration and trust. Later in life I would learn why my father had such great respect for his friend. Giro Shanahan was one of those rare individuals who would suffer in silence and let the world do him severe injury in order to pro­tect those whom he loved."

So don't let me hear you say you can't find a thing to read, because this stuff is pure 20w50 multigrade, so get down to your local public library pronto and check the shelf under crime fiction - Burke, James Lee, you won't regret it. So it's cheers from your old mate Jacko until we meet again.

Listen to an interview with JLB -

Friday, 5 September 2008

The Richard Sharpe novels of Bernard Cornwell

G'day, I know I've been a bit quiet of late but the dog's been around and I've only just got rid of him. So here we are again, now let me tell you, if you haven't already come across the adventures of Richard Sharpe, well you're in for a real treat, you can take my word on it.

So who's this Cornwell bloke, well he's an authority on the Napoleonic wars for a start . Reminds me of a maths teacher I had once, we called him Boney, short little bloke, liked to throw his weight around, just like the real one. Old Boney, you know the one: "not tonight Josephine", only I doubt he ever said it, or if he did he ought to be ashamed - nice looking sheila like that. Anyway they reckon his old chap was removed after he kicked the bucket and preserved in a jar, in the interests of science. Boney's that is, not me old teacher's, although that wouldn't have done him any harm. More likely the surgeon thought he'd make a few quid on the side, nice work if you can get it. Coincidentally there's a story about Barbara Villiers, bit of a goer and one of the many sweethearts of Charles II, but we'll save that one for later on.

Now where was I, ah yes Boney, and Sharpe, and Sir Arthur Wellesley - 1st Duke of Wellington, who provides a thread of unifying character through out the series. Although he may not appear in every one of the 21 books to date, his presence is felt just the same. Sharpe fights his first battle as a private under Wellington in Injas sunny clime against the Tippoo Sultan at Seringapatam, who was allied with the French at the time; and his supposed last battle against Boney and the Frogs at Waterloo, I say supposed because literary characters have a way of extending their existence beyond that originally intended by the author, and in some cases beyond even the original author's existence, I mean look at Ginger Meggs, Blinky Bill and the Magic Pudding, all turned into cartoons for the kiddies.

Now the interesting thing about Seringapatam is that the 37 year old Lachlan Macquarie, our greatest early colonial governor, also fought there and came away with 1300 pounds in prize money, a handy sum then. So Lachie could have easily rubbed shoulders with Richard Sharpe, not that they would have held converse, one being a London gutter rat private the other the Deputy Paymaster General of the 77th Regiment and a soon to be Scotch laird. But Sharpe is a good bloke to have near by whenever the going gets rough, which it usually does, having saved Wellington himself in close quarter combat against a horde of Mahrattas at the wheel of a cannon, armed only with cold steel.

And I'll tell you something else interesting - Major Thomas Mitchell, our famous explorer and surveyor, and builder of the road down Victoria Pass in the Blue Mountains, served under Wellington in the Iberian Peninsular Campaign of 1811-1814 against the French, where he compiled army maps and plans of the country and the battles; so he probably met Richard Sharpe as well - yes it's a small world.

I'm going to have to stop here because it's just started raining and I need to get them ewes and lambs in...but I'm coming back soon.....No worries and all's well, nice to have some precipitation though. It's just that I've got a couple of bloodlines coming through that I reckon could be good for next year's sheep races at Caragabal. They're Border Leicester cross Dorset giving the good conformation and the temperament, unless they end up with the Border Leicester temperament and the Dorset's conformation! What would you do with a bad tempered short legged animal like that - put it to work as a watch dog I reckon. I'm sure there are some nice tempered BL's out there, I just haven't met one, that's all. But it's a good way to raise money for charity especially since there's no point in having me head shaved any more, so we'll see how they go and I'll keep you posted.

So anyway we might have a closer look at the characters and the writing and you can see what you think. One thing you'll find is that the detail of the weaponry and tactics is brilliant and with sound historical basis, much of it from original sources including the military memoirs of the men who were there. And here is yarn about one of them and the siege of Badajoz.

Now the siege of Badojoz in 1809 is the setting for Sharps Company. Sharpe and his Irish side kick Patrick Harper were in the Forlorn Hope, the death or glory company of volunteers formed to fight their way into the breach in the fortified walls of towns and fortresses, most would die but the survivors recieved instant promotion and that's where our figure of speech originates. Coincidentally the only time that the Duke of Wellington ever showed grief in public was after the storming of Badajoz, when he cried at the sight of the British dead in the breaches. So after winning through as you might expect, the place is pretty quickly occupied by drunken, rowdy British troops, who as tradition allowed, had free reign on the town they had conquered.

Now one of the senoritas of the town was a 14 year Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon, a sheila of noble birth, who was rescued, blood teaming from her torn ear lobes where the ear rings had been ripped out; by a young English officer name of Harry Smith, who soon married her and was knighted in 1843, after victory over the Sikhs at Aliwal. Harry was was appointed governor of the Cape colony in South Africa in 1847, where the couple was endeared by the locals, and the town of Ladysmith, Natal was named in Juana Maria's honour.

Now if you are still with me, Ladysmith was beseiged during the Boer War 1900-02, and the commander of 12 Company in the famous Relief of Ladysmith, was Lieutenant John Gellibrand, born at Ouse in Tasmania. He commanded 12 Battalion at Gallipoli and was also involved in operations at Poziers, Mouquet Farm, the Bapaume Sector and Bullecourt, where he was awarded the bar to his DSO; and on the Hindenburg Line, leaving France at the end of The Great War with the rank of Major General. Returning to his apple orchard in Risden, he went on to hold various government, military and political posts in Australia, and had a pivotal role in the establishment of the Legacy movement. So how's that for a Sharpe connection.

But stay with me because now it gets interesting, you see my Pa Russell was in Legacy from early on, so I'm connected to bloody Sharpe too. But wait, Harry Flashman from the George Macdonald Fraser series (see entry elsewhere in this blog) was also involved in the Sikh war where he recovered the legendary Koh-i-noor, or Mountain of Light diamond, later presented to Queen Victoria by the East India Company in 1850 and now sits in the Tower of London. I'd put moneyon it that Harry Flashman and Harry Smith, both captains at the time, met during the Sikh war, around 1843. So yours truly has a family connection to a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, a senorita with scared earlobes, the Koh-i-noor, Major General John Gellibrand who knew Breaker Morant who married Daisy Bates and knew Banjo Patterson whose poem appears hereabouts, as well as Harry Flashman and Richard Sharpe - I always said it's a small world.

But back to Sharpe: the fighting scenes throughout the series, both the large military manoeuvres and small personal combats, are gripping and pull no punches - plenty of claret splashed around for sure. The language uses historical terms to add flavour but does not attempt to recreate Georgian English although there is little in the way of strong language - if you've ever heard soldiers talk. There is usually a romantic interest, as you would expect, but the cut and thrust is much less explicit and plays a secondary role to the fighting - quite the opposite to Flashman for example. Sharpe's mate Patrick Harper is also a good bloke to have in a tight corner as well, kind of Sharpe's Sharpe you might say.

So here is a little quote from Sharpe's Havoc to whet your appetite. The action takes place in the Spring of 1809 when the French invasion of northern Portugal begins and Sharpe, now a lieutenant, Harper, and his squad of riflemen are sent to the beleaguered city of Oporto on a special mission. Sharpe is betrayed and amidst the wreckage of a defeated French army, in the storm lashed hills of the Portuguese frontier, he takes a terrible revenge, and recovers his lost telescope, a gift from Sir Arthur Wellesley himself :

"Christopher and Williamson edged away. Christopher watched Sharpe pick up the glass. ‘Not damaged, you see? I took good care of it.’ He had to shout to make himself heard over the seething rain and the crash of the river thrusting through the rocks. He pushed Williamson forward again, but the man obstinately refused to attack and Christopher now found himself trapped on a slippery ledge between cliff and river, and the Colonel, in this last extremity, finally abandoned trying to talk himself out of trouble and simply shoved the deserter towards Sharpe. ‘Kill him!’ he shouted at Williamson. ‘Kill him!’ The hard shove in his back seemed to startle Williamson, who nevertheless raised the sabre and slashed it at Sharpe’s head. There was a great clang as the two blades met, then Sharpe kicked the deserter’s left knee, a kick that made Williamson’s leg buckle, and Sharpe, who looked as though he was not making any particular effort, sliced the sword across Williamson’s neck so that the deserter was knocked back to the right and then the sword lunged through the rifleman’s green jacket and into his belly. Sharpe twisted the blade to stop it being trapped by the suction of flesh, ripped it free and watched the dying Williamson topple into the river. ‘I hate deserters,’ Sharpe said, ‘I do so hate bloody deserters.’"

Now what do you make of that? Worth a go? I reckon it's SAE grade 30 oil - smooth and easy, a bit old fashioned but long lasting and dependable. Well what are you waiting for. Get down to your public library pronto for a couple of Sharpe titles and start reading; and if you find some on the red cross stall, pick them up for the shed, you won't regret it I can promise you.

Now a final word about the DOG, if you've met him you'll know what I'm talking about. If you don't know him, you should at least know the signs and here's a good place to start . So don't be afraid to check up on your mates because I reckon it's every bloke's responsibility, and don't hesitate to let a mate know if things aren't right with yourself and things are getting you down. Get to the quack if need be and get something for it. It can creep up on you before you know it, and then you're in trouble, so start talking and listening to your mates.

So until next time it's cheers from your mate Jacko, and remember what I told you about Fido.

All the World

Jaques -
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts...