Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Microreview [book]: Bitterroot by James Lee Burke

Burke, James Lee. Bitterroot [Pocket Books, 2002]

The Meat

Read enough crime fiction and you realize that it basically comes in two flavors. There's the "whodunit," where a sleuth moves through a limited number of suspects--all of whom have motive and means to commit the crime. And then there's "noir," where there might be a formal mystery, but what really matters is the protagonist's tortured relationship to the social environment that produces criminality. This may not be the orthodox meaning of the term, but it fits. Defined in such a way, noir transcends the hard-boiled urban environs the word emerged to describe, and encompasses all kinds of gritty psychological fiction.

Despite noir's greater literary cachet, most popular crime novels are whodunits--formulaic, plot-driven, predictable and, when successful, "fun." They are the perfect books to read on a beach or an airplane, or when you want a good story but don't really feel like being challenged--which, apparently, is most of the time. So big name authors keep cranking the suckers out, and readers just can't get enough of them.

Bitterroot, the third book in Burke's Billy Bob Holland series, fits uncomfortably into this scheme. Burke is a bona fide name brand in crime fiction--he's won 2 Edgar awards, is ranked the #70 most popular fiction author on Amazon and has made the New York Times bestseller list numerous times. His books are published in the travel and airport bookstore-friendly mass market form generally reserved for high volume authors whose books aren't considered shelf material by most of their audience. And boy does he ever crank 'em out--32 novels and 2 short story collections in total, and nearly one every year since hitting stride in 1987.

But Bitterroot, at least, isn't the kind of disposable whodunit I usually associate with writers who do things like that. Instead, it's a surprisingly atmospheric, character-driven crime novel that's two parts noir for every part whodunit. And that's a good thing--because the plot is an utter mess.

The premise is this: lawyer and ex-Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland drives up to Montana to visit an old friend, Doc Voss, an ex-SEAL/environmentalist/poet/single-dad-with-a-moderately-rebellious-teenage-daughter who has come into conflict with a white supremacist militia over ecologically destructive gold mining. Bad shit happens involving a biker gang that seems to be working for the white supremacists, but which doesn't appear to have anything to do with the aforementioned gold mining. A malevolent figure from Billy Bob's past is also there--an ultra-creepy Texas baddie Billy Bob doesn't really remember that well, but who is clearly scary as shit. A wino douchebag writer and his distant, coke-snorting wife are somehow involved, as is the Italian Mafia and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Oh, and did I mention there's a pedophile/kidnapper ring in the mix as well?

If that sounds like a clusterfuck to you, that's because it is. But it hardly matters, because Bitterroot isn't a whodunit. Rather, it's classic noir--that is, the kind of noir you find on the gritty edge of the Western. It's a book about confronting the demons, real and imagined, that emerge almost inevitable from histories of violence. You see the conclusion coming a mile away, of course, but that's part of the charm. The atmosphere is so tense and claustrophobic that the book is almost impossible to put down.

The quality of prose was also a pleasant surprise. While Chandler and Highsmith can match up to anyone, the fact of the matter is that most crime prose metaphorically fits the physical form of the mass market paperback--small, cheap and forgettable. But Burke has a way with voice, and his characters ooze authenticity. Conversations are thick with evasions and implications, so much so that I had to re-read a bunch to make sure I caught everything that was (or wasn't) being said.

The main issue I took with Bitterroot, aside from the overly complicated plotting, centers on one instance of sexual violence against a female character. Now, I don't think rape should be off-limits for writers, but as I've opined in another literary context, I want authors--and particularly male authors--to have a good think about what rape accomplishes for the story, and if it's just "to show that this is a dark and foreboding world," then perhaps they should consider taking another route.

Mercifully, the rape in Bitterroot is not graphic, and in fact occurs off-stage. So I don't think readers will find this terribly exploitative or triggery. At the same time, the individual raped--and the people around her--appear to forget it even happened. Consequently, there's little attempt to say anything interesting or profound about how people experience, interpret and attempt to come to terms with sexual violence. This strikes me as part of the problem, albeit a lesser one to the graphic rapeyness prevalent in so much genre fiction.

On the other hand, there's a subtle but steady appeal to social conscience evident in Bitterroot. Holland evinces an abiding sadness about the fate of Native Americans, the exploitation of Montana's pristine nature and the hatreds that infect the heart and mind. It's not hokey, it's not preachy and it's not ideological. But it gives Bitterroot a humanistic sensibility that sets it apart from the glut of crime novels.

In sum: despite a few missteps, Bitterroot is still one of the better crime novels I've read this year. Unlike most of its mass-market brethren, it's all about mood, and as such, will leave a lasting impression. Good stuff.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for voice; +1 for mood; +1 for being thoughtful noir disguised as a generic whodunit.

Penalties: -1 for all the superfluous plot twists; -1 for "wait, isn't this supposed to be about environmentally-destructive gold mining"; -1 for "I guess that rape never happened."

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."