Some years back, I attended a Montana book conference that featured a panel discussion on writing “tough guy” characters. On the panel were writers I was very familiar with, like James Crumley, and one I hadn’t read. James Lee Burke had two series going, and I hadn’t read either one. I made a mental note to read some of his stuff, but somehow never got around to it until recently.
Bitterroot is the third book in Burke’s “Billy Bob Holland” series, and if the rest of the series is this good, I’ll be reading all of them very soon.
The main protagonist, Billy Bob Holland, is a former Texas Ranger who is still coping with having shot and killed his partner years ago when taking down some drug dealers. He is invited by old friend Doc Voss to come out to the Missoula area and fish for a few months. Billy Bob heads out, expecting a relaxing and idyllic vacation. Instead, he finds himself embroiled in Doc’s issues with mining companies, protests, and water pollution.
Things get worse when a sadistic convict named Wyatt Dixon is released from prison. Dixon blames Billy Bob for his sister’s death and his own imprisonment, and he plays out his grudge by going after Billy Bob and his friends.
Burke’s writing in Bitterroot ranges from lyrical descriptions of the mountains, the streams, and the fish to disturbingly-detailed insights into the mind of a psychotic killer. Neither Billy Bob nor his friend Doc are what you’d call nice guys. They both have violent pasts, and when Billy Bob’s son shows up, they both have kids to protect.
When the action grows intense, so does the moral ambiguity. Bodies are showing up, and nobody is sure who’s doing the killing; or even whether it’s all one killer. With so many nasty antagonists and several violent and short-tempered protagonists, it kept me hanging on every word all the way to the end.
I would recommend Bitterroot to anyone who likes hard-boiled detective mysteries, action packed thrillers, and nature writing, as Burke manages to mix all three into this one volume.