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BURKE'S LUMINOUS PROSE RECREATES MONTANA WILDERNESS IN 'BITTERROOT'

Bitterroot
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster
336 pages, $25

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James Lee Burke long ago made his mark in literature by evocatively exploring the bayous of Louisiana and the inner terrain of good men who embrace violence. His most noted character, Cajun police detective Dave Robicheaux, has by now survived enough episodes of extreme physical and emotional violence to kill half a town and put the remainder in the madhouse.

But Burke's tales are set in such luminous prose that it blunts the harshness of the gun-barrel justice, retribution and hell-bent revenge that power his plots.

With "Cimarron Rose," another Burke best seller released in 1997, readers met a new character: Billy Bob Holland, a former Texas Ranger turned attorney who lugs his own brutal past with him like Jacob Marley's chains wherever he goes. But despite the lack of Cajun inflection and the Louisiana settings, many readers will note the similarities between Burke's main men.

They fish well, shoot straight, and make love with abandon, all the while carrying, in the back of their minds, the knowledge that any pleasure, any peace, is but an interlude between storms.

Thus when Billy Bob Holland travels North from his Texas practice to spend some time with Doc Voss and his daughter Maisey in the Montana wilderness, it's anything but a surprise that within a day, there are enemies coming at Holland and Doc from at least two angles.

But with Doc an ex-SEAL with Vietnam War combat scars, and Holland's time as a killer in the desert along the Rio Grande, the bad guys will have their hands full.

Burke presents a mix-and-match grab bag of villains to choose from: a biker gang; a virulent white supremacist hive; a stone cold killer who blames Holland for his sister's death and somehow tracked him to Montana; and a cutthroat mining company already ruthless enough to poison streams with the cyanide used in their gold-mining operations.

There are characters in popular fiction who, faced with such an array of enemies in largely unknown surroundings, would fall back and regroup. They would not be James Lee Burke's men, however.

The whole world might rise up in chorus, urging them to take it easy, play it safe, but they would no sooner throttle back than the greyhound would spurn the electronic rabbit. The reader is given to understand that Holland, like Robicheaux, can hardly pass by someone being done wrong without stopping to help. Less admirable, perhaps, they both can hardly pass by a bad guy without waving a red cape in his face.

As often occurs in the Robicheaux books, the provocation results in an attack on an innocent relative. Then purported suspects start dying.

In the central mission of "Bitterroot," Holland has to keep his old friend out of jail while figuring out if he did the killings, or was only set up to take the fall.

The similarities with past books are cloyingly strong at times, as with Holland's habit of conversing with the spectral form of his dead partner in times of stress.

But in the end, despite Burke's leaning on old habits, the rewarding features stay the same as well. Burke's writing lovingly recreates the Montana wilderness, and his skill with dialogue produces crackling exchanges.

Any writer who produces tales with this much literature in them, packing so many small rewards into his paragraphs, deserves to be read for all his flaws.

Like the paragraph after Holland does not execute a bad guy, giving him a bullet instead by dropping an unfired cartridge in his lap.

"...You're going into a cage ... where somebody can study you, the way they would a gerbil. We plan to have a good life. You won't be part of it, either."

I stood up and felt the bones pop in my knees. I steadied myself against the side of the truck, kicking the stiffness loose from one leg, like a man who knows he's a little older, a little more worn around the edges, a little more prone to let the season have its way.

Andrew Z. Galarneau is a reporter in The News Niagara Bureau

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