Cimarron Rose – James Lee Burke
They say when you lose someone you experience a range of emotions, from anger to denial all the way through to acceptance. I think the process is called the “7 stages of grief” but don’t ask me to name them all. Why do I start this review on such a crazy tangent I hear you ask? Simply put, I don’t think I have ever experienced so many different emotions when reading a book and not in a good way.
Lucas Smothers, nineteen and from the wrong end of town, has been arrested for the rape and murder of a local girl. His lawyer Billy Bob Holland is convinced of Lucas's innocence but proving it means unearthing the truth from a seething mass of deceit and corruption. A corruption endemic in the way it can be only in a gossipy small town where everybody knows everybody else's business. Billy Bob's relationship with Lucas's family is not an easy one years back he was a close friend of Mrs Smothers, too close according to her husband Vernon. And when Lucas overhears gruesome tales of serial murder from a neighbouring cell in the local lock up, the waters are muddied even further and Lucas himself looks like a candidate for an untimely death.
James Lee Burke is highly regarded by some of my favourite authors. If I am honest I had already read this book almost 5 years ago. I have been meaning to read the second in the series for a while, but when I picked it up, I realised I remembered absolutely nothing about the first book. Surely this was not a good sign or was it a case of my memory getting that bad?
The answer is somewhere in between.
Emotion 1 = Hatred.
I absolutely despised this book for the first third, to the point where I was going to give up on it. James Lee Burke is the quintessential example of showing and not telling. However, in my eyes, this is the perfect argument to counter all those so called experts that proclaim this is how writing should be.
The main character Billy Bob is not the problem. Through his actions we quickly realise the type of man he is. He has his own sense of justice and follows his own moral code and this is well portrayed.
That is not to say he is not annoying. You see Billy Bob is afraid to use a gun because he does not like the violence it brings and because of what happened last time he used a firearm. However, this sense of self correction is completely at odds with the character we see who has little qualms with being violent for example whilst sitting on his horse dragging someone by a rope through a bar. He is also laconic but not in a cool way. He hardly ever uses more than one sentence when speaking to someone and all too soon the conversation is over.
Herein lies my main issue with the first third of the book. Each scene only lasts a couple of paragraphs at best. Billy Bob will knock on someone’s door, tell them something, they will rant at him and Billy Bob will shrug and walk away. End scene.
Whilst we get a clear image of Billy Bob’s character through this method of writing, it is hard to distinguish between everyone else. By meeting them in very short bursts, it is very difficult to remember who they are and what personality they had. It also means their characters do not develop in anyway. There are some characters that are well done and easy to remember. Pete, a young boy that Billy Bob hangs around with is endearing but he is also easy to remember as JLB reminds us who he is (the smartest guy Billy Bob has ever met). There is also LQ Navarro, the ghost of Billy Bob’s best friend. LQ serves as the voice of reasoning and an insight into the inner dialogue of Billy Bob’s mind.
There is also a budding romance on the cards, but as Billy Bob never thinks on this, we don’t really care if it happens or not. Apart from these though, every other character just seems nasty and angry.
Emotion 2 = Indifference.
The middle of the book (call it the second quarter – yes I know I used thirds to begin with, sue me). Left me feeling like I really didn’t care what was happening in the story.
It may have been just me, but I never got a sense of where the investigation was going. Billy Bob would talk to many people but I had no idea why he was talking to them or get a feel for the case he was building. I did not know who was connected to the case or who was part of the larger picture. One minute Billy Bob would find a key witness and then they would not feature.
Emotion 3 = Investment.
Somehow though, I found myself getting a handle on who everyone was. It is not that I am slow; it is just that initially the book did not grab me enough to care. However, as the story progressed I began to get more intrigued. It is still not a good thing when the best parts of the book is not what is currently going on, but the back story involving your dead friend and diary excerpts from your Grandfather. But gradually I began to slightly enjoy the book. The characters were still the same as the start of the book but you began to sympathise with some of them.
Emotion 4 = Enjoyment.
As soon as the inevitable trial began, the book went up a notch. The plot became a lot more focussed and the action was clear. However, I still had issues with the writing as the proceedings were summarised rather than being shown. There were times when James Lee Burke (JLB) described the cross-examining of the witnesses and these were so well done I really wanted to read more. Instead he would forward to the next day of the trial and briefly recap what went on.
The verdict hinges on a nice bit of drama that, whilst powerful, I am sceptical whether or not the incident would have been enough to persuade the jury fully one way or another. It is also wrapped up far too quickly for my liking, although with the events that follow I can see why JLB decided to do this.
Overall then, where to start? Despite my early negative feelings towards this book, I was left satisfied by the end. I can see why others rate the novel highly. JLB definitely is a skilled writer; I just got the impression that he did not demonstrate his craft to the best of his ability here.
My rating: 6.5