Burton’s talent for recreating historical detail and the eccentricities of a particular era is enhanced by a fine sense of irony and wry humor apropos to his protagonist, Texas Ranger Virgil Tucker, in 1942 Texas. Despite wartime rationing, Tucker speeds from one encounter to another in search of answers as elusive as the thugs he meets along the way are ubiquitous.
It all begins with a secret meeting with Madeline Kimbull, a demure woman fleeing a spurned lover after the murder of prominent Texas attorney Henry De Mour. Tucker allows a pretty face to distract him from a strong intuition that Madeline isn’t telling him the whole truth about her ex-lover or her involvement in the attorney’s death, using family resources and local officials near his ranch, La Rosa, in east Texas to hide the girl from her pursuers.
In a clever match up of old-school law enforcement and the influential political figures, Tucker takes on ambitious gangsters intent on establishing the Texas coast as a mecca for gambling and entertainment, Tucker and his posse of ex-lawmen confronting the blight of organized crime (originating in New Orleans) attempting a coup and a lucrative foothold on the Galveston coast. Not that Texans are against to a little corruption; they prefer their corruption home-grown, not some mob-influenced heavies muscling in on already established political quid pro quo.
As sure footed as Raymond Chandler and as witty as Elmore Leonard, Burton lays out a grid of confrontation and violence, righteous—if flawed—men, muscle for hire, smooth-faced hustlers with soulless eyes in a rogue’s gallery as diverse as the counties Tucker travels to unravel the machinations behind Henry De Mour’s murder. The damsel in distress is only the tip of the iceberg, a tease and a distraction, albeit considerably dangerous for what she has witnessed: “The world only appears civilized. Underneath the surface, it’s all savagery.”
Burton captures the flavor of Texas and its temptation to enterprising men of few scruples in this slice of the state’s wartime history circa 1942. The result is an entertaining and pleasantly nostalgic rendering of the Lone Star state at a time a country at war is already forging a post-war identity, one where opportunity awaits the ambitious, the driven, and unscrupulous folks with the skills to marry politics and community relationships. The sophisticated criminal organizations keep pace with legitimate enterprise, a little bit of corruption going a long way to grease the wheels of progress.
Definitely old school, Virgil’s ties to the family ranch keep him grounded in the core values of his life, whether absorbed in memories with the time-worn vaqueros he’s known since childhood or fearlessly facing certain violence without backing down. Although I have written of Burton’s qualities as a writer in the present, this gifted man has left the world so charmed by his imagination. His wonderful stories, however, will live on, the legacy of a true artist.