We live in morally ambiguous times, where it is often difficult to identify the enemy or his secret agenda. Add in the liberal use of the Patriot Act in law enforcement and the ubiquitous government agencies that are involved in areas that were formerly restricted by law, and you get a strange brew of good guys and bad guys - James Lee Burke’s latest mystery.
Burke uses his considerable talent to tell a folksy tale of honorable men versus miscreants in a setting as close to the wild origins of the Old West as it is possible to get today, only now the lines have blurred between the lawless and the lawful. Like stories told in merry olde England, political tracts dressed up as nursery rhymes, Burke cloaks his morality play in the costumes of cowboys, FBI agents, local law enforcement and guns-for-hire, “brain-singed mercenaries” and war vets who manage to avoid computer data bases, “men who could not purge their dreams of memories.”
When Billy Bob Holland, Attorney at Law, undertakes the defense of a local Indian, Johnny American Horse, the case appears a simple matter, although Johnny is not one to spend much time worrying about his own defense. Even when Detective Darrell McComb crosses the line and pushes the case to the next level, Billy Bob is still dealing with issues that can be negotiated within the legal system.
But when a moral imperative intervenes in the person of Wyatt Dixon, Holland’s nemesis, the past threatens to obscure the present. The two men have a violent history with no love lost between them. Wyatt claims he is a changed man, having found the Lord, but Billy Bob can’t buy the story, knowing Wyatt’s true sociopathic nature. An ex-Texas Ranger, Holland will only tolerate so much aggravation from Wyatt before his own stubbornness kicks in.
In an effort to protect Johnny American Horse from a frame-up, Holland is never sure who to trust or how to preserve his own best interests, let alone his client’s. Whatever evil is secretly manipulating behind-the-scenes events, it is clear that Johnny is the nominal scapegoat. Strange bedfellows being what they are, Holland experiences considerable discomfort when Wyatt Dixon hovers on the sidelines, claiming they are both on the same side. Meanwhile the bodies pile up; Holland does what he can to protect his family and clients, but he is not always able to square his actions with his conscience.
It’s not so much the assortment of eccentric characters or the plot that so deftly layers the issues, but the surety with which the author writes that makes In the Moon of Red Ponies: A Billy Bob Holland Novel such a joy to read. Burke is back in the saddle with this book and knows where he is going, never giving away too much, but just enough to keep the reader interested. Knowing all the players in this book may require a scorecard, but it is Burke’s talent that pulls the book together in an obscure but believable trek into the dark heart of the American wilderness, where greed eats away like acid at the last frontier.