Hackberry Holland, the bone-weary but morally sturdy protagonist of James Lee Burke's riveting new novel, was not always a good man.
After surviving a harrowing stint as a POW in the Korean War, Hack chased women, drank too much and otherwise squandered any blessings offered by work in politics. Now, though, he's settled down and sober, growing old as sheriff of a dusty town down near the Mexican border, still mourning the death of the wife who helped turn his life around.
Then Pete Flores, a young Iraq War veteran caught up in a crime that's gone too far, makes a 911 call. ''Last night there was some shooting here. A lot of it.'' Hackberry investigates and uncovers -- literally -- the bodies of nine young Asian women buried in a field. Fearing retribution, Pete and his girlfriend Vikki flee, chased by members of organized crime, federal agents (one of them unhinged), drug dealers, porn peddlers and Preacher Jack Collins, an evangelical killer for hire with a confounding sense of biblical justice.
Author of two fine suspense series, Burke revisits familiar themes -- the wages of sin, the rewards of redemption, how past horrors are just about impossible to shake -- against the backdrop of the new West, where a different sort of outlaw who trafficks not only in drugs but also in human beings lays claim to the land.
Burke is a deliberate storyteller; he doesn't skimp on the action, but his exploration of human foibles is deep, and his characters are true. Hackberry wants to retreat from life -- ''[A]t a certain age, you finally accept and trust yourself and let go of the world,'' he thinks, and yet his moral compass won't allow him to let go of much of anything. Even Preacher Jack, kin to the sort of mythic creature who pops up in the dark comedies of Carl Hiaasen, is more intriguing and threatening than humorous. You wouldn't laugh at him. You'd run.
Burke also excels at bringing to life strong, vibrant women. Vikki turns out to be tougher and more savvy than Pete could ever be, and Hackberry's subordinate Pam Tibbs, who has a yen for her boss, is so finely drawn she deserves a book all her own. Rain Gods is about catching the bad guys, but it's also a moving, melancholy examination of how we do wrong, then try our best to atone.