Texas attorney Billy Bob Holland must confront the past in order to save his illegitimate son from a murder conviction in this brilliant, fast-paced thriller from beloved New York Times bestselling author James Lee Burke.
Lucas Smothers, nineteen and from the wrong end of town, has been arrested for the rape and murder of a local girl. His lawyer, former Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland, is convinced of Lucas’s innocence—but proving it means unearthing the truth from the seething mass of deceit and corruption that spreads like wildfire 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. But when Lucas overhears gruesome tales of serial murder from a neighboring cell in the local lock-up, he himself looks like a candidate for an untimely death, and Billy Bob incurs enemies far more dangerous than any he faced as a Ranger.
With the same electric language and hard-edged style that brought James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels to the forefront of American crime fiction, Cimarron Rose explodes with a harsh, evocative setting and unforgettable characters.
About the Author
James Lee Burke is a New York Times bestselling author, two-time winner of the Edgar Award, and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in Fiction. He’s authored thirty-seven novels and two short story collections. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
Hometown:New Iberia, Louisiana and Missoula, Montana
Date of Birth:December 5, 1936
Place of Birth:Houston, Texas
Education:B.A., University of Missouri, 1959; M.A., University of Missouri, 1960
Read an Excerpt
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER WAS Sam Morgan Holland, a drover who trailed cows up the Chisholm from San Antonio to Kansas. Most of his life Greatgrandpa Sam fought whiskey and Indians and cow thieves and with some regularity watched gully washers or dry lightning spook his herds over half of Oklahoma Territory.
Whether it was because of busthead whiskey or just the bad luck to have lost everything he ever worked for, he railed at God and the human race for years and shot five or six men in gun duels. Then one morning, cold sober, he hung his chaps and clothes and Navy Colt revolvers on a tree and was baptized by immersion in the Guadalupe River. But Greatgrandpa Sam found no peace. He sat each Sunday on the mourners’ bench at the front of the congregation in a mud-chinked Baptist church, filled with an unrelieved misery he couldn’t explain. One month later he decided to ride to San Antonio and kill his desire for whiskey in the only way he knew, and that was to drink until he murdered all the warring voices inside his head.
On the trail he met a hollow-eyed preacher whose face had been branded with red-hot horseshoes by Comanches north of the Cimarron. The preacher made Sam kneel with him in a brush arbor, then unexpectedly grasped Sam’s head in his hands and ordained him. Without speaking again he propped his Bible against Sam’s rolled slicker and disappeared over a hill into a dust cloud and left no tracks on the other side.
For the rest of his life, Great-grandpa Sam preached out of the saddle in the same cow camps his herds had trampled into shredded canvas and splintered wagon boards when he was a drover.
His son, Hackberry, who was also known in our family as Grandpa Big Bud, was a Texas Ranger who chased Pancho Villa into Old Mexico. As a young lawman he locked John Wesley Hardin in the county jail and was still wearing a badge decades later when he stuffed Clyde Barrow headfirst down a trash can in a part of Dallas once known as “The Bog.”
But Grandpa Big Bud always made sure you knew he was not at Arcadia, Louisiana, when Bonnie Parker and Clyde were trapped inside their car by Texas Rangers and sawed apart with Browning automatic rifles and Thompson .45 submachine guns.
“You don’t figure they had it coming?” I once asked him.
“People forget they wasn’t much more than kids. You cain’t take a kid down without shooting him a hundred times, you’re a pisspoor Ranger in my view,” he said.
My grandfather and his father were both violent men. Their eyes were possessed of a peculiar unfocused light that soldiers call the thousand-yard stare, and the ghosts of the men they had killed visited them in their sleep and stood in attendance by their deathbeds. When I was a young police officer in Houston, I swore their legacy would never be mine.
But if there are drunkards in your family, the chances are you will drink from the same cup as they. The war that can flare in your breast with each dawn doesn’t always have to come from a charcoal-lined barrel.
I LIVED ALONE in a three-story late-Victorian house built of purple brick, twenty miles from the little town of Deaf Smith, the county seat. The house had a second-story veranda and a wide, screened-in gallery, the woodwork painted a gleaming white. The front and back yards were enclosed by poplar trees and myrtle bushes and the flower beds planted with red and yellow roses.
I made sun tea in big jars on the gallery, grilled steaks for friends under the chinaberry tree in the backyard, and sometimes cane-fished with a bunch of Mexican children in the two-acre tank, or lake, at the back of my farm. But at night my footsteps rang off the oak and mahogany woodwork inside my house like stones dropped down an empty well.
The ghosts of my ancestors did not visit me. The ghost of another man did. His name was L.Q. Navarro. In life he was the most handsome man I ever knew, with jet black hair and wide shoulders and skin as brown and smooth as newly dyed leather. When he appeared to me he wore the clothes he had died in, a dark pinstriped suit and dusty boots, a floppy gray Stetson, a white shirt that glowed like electrified snow. His hand-tooled gunbelt and holstered revolver hung on his thigh like a silly afterthought. Through the top buttonhole of his shirt he had inserted the stem of a scarlet rose.
Sometimes he disappeared into sunlight, his form breaking into millions of golden particles. At other times I did pro bono work on hopeless defenses, and my spectral visitor declared a temporary amnesty and waited patiently each night by himself among the mesquite trees and blackjack oaks on a distant hillside.
The phone rang at 10 A.M. on a Sunday morning in April.
“They got my boy in the jailhouse. I want him out,” the voice said.
“Is that you, Vernon?”
“No, it’s the nigger in the woodpile.”
Vernon Smothers, the worst business mistake in my life. He farmed seventy acres of my land on shares, and I had reached a point where I was almost willing to pay him not to come to work.
“What’s he charged with?” I asked.
I could hear Vernon chewing on something—a piece of hard candy, perhaps. I could almost see the knotted thoughts in his eyes as he looked for the trap he always found in other people’s words.
“He was drunk again. Down by the river.”
“Call a bondsman.”
“They made up some lies . . . They’re saying he raped a girl down there.”
“Where’s the girl?”
“At the hospital. She ain’t conscious so she cain’t say who done it. That means they ain’t got no case. Ain’t that right?”
“I want a promise from you . . . If I get him out, don’t you dare put your hand on him.”
“How about you just mind your own goddamn business, then?” he said, and hung up.
THE COUNTY COURTHOUSE was built of sandstone, surrounded by a high-banked green lawn and live-oak trees whose tops touched the third story. The jailer was named Harley Sweet and his mouth always hung partly open while you spoke, as though he were patiently trying to understand your train of thought. But he was not an understanding man. When he was a deputy sheriff, many black and Mexican men in his custody never reached the jail. Nor thereafter did they stay on the same sidewalk as he when they saw him coming in their direction.
“You want to see Lucas Smothers, do you? We feed at twelve-thirty. Better come back after then,” he said. He slapped a fly on his desk with a horse quirt. He looked at me, slack-jawed, his eyes indolent, waiting God knows for what.
“If that’s the way you want it, Harley. But from this moment on, he’d better not be questioned unless I’m present.”
“You’re representing him?”
He got up from his desk, opened a door with a frosted glass window in it, and went inside an adjoining office. He came back with a handful of Polaroid pictures and dropped them on his desk.
“Check out the artwork. That’s what she looked like when he got finished with her. She had semen in her vagina and he had it inside his britches. She had skin under her fingernails and he has scratches on his body. I cain’t imagine what the lab will say. You can really pick your cases, Billy Bob,” he said.
“Where was she?”
“Thirty yards from where he was passed out.” He started to drink out of his coffee cup, then set it back down. His silver snap-button cowboy shirt shimmered with light. “Oh hell, you want to spend your Sunday morning with a kid cain’t tell the difference between shit and bean dip, I’ll call upstairs. You know where the elevator’s at.”
WHEN OTHER BOYS in high school played baseball or ran track, Lucas Smothers played the guitar. Then the mandolin, banjo, and Dobro. He hung in black nightclubs, went to camp meetings just for the music, and ran away from home to hear Bill Monroe in Wichita, Kansas. He could tell you almost any detail about the careers of country musicians whose names belonged to a working-class era in America’s musical history that had disappeared with five-cent Wurlitzer jukeboxes—Hank and Lefty, Kitty Wells, Bob Wills, the Light Crust Dough Boys, Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana, Moon Mullican, Texas Ruby.
His hands were a miracle to watch on a stringed instrument. But in his father’s eyes, they, like Lucas himself, were not good for anything of value.
When he was sixteen Vernon caught him playing triple-neck steel in a beer joint in Lampasas and beat him so unmercifully with a razor strop in the front yard that a passing truck driver climbed out of his cab and pinned Vernon’s arms to his sides until the boy could run next door.
Lucas sat shirtless in blue jeans and a pair of scuffed cowboy boots on the edge of a bunk in a narrow cell layered with jailhouse graffiti. His face was gray with hangover and fear, his reddish blond hair spongy with sweat. His snap-button western shirt lay at his feet. It had blue-and-white checks in it, and white cloth in the shoulders with tiny gold trumpets stitched in it. He had paid forty dollars for the shirt when he had first joined the band at Shorty’s.
“How you feel?” I asked, after the turnkey locked the solid iron door behind me.
“Not too good.” His wrists were thick, his wide hands cupped on top of his knees. “They tell you about the girl . . . I mean, like how’s she doing?”
“She’s in bad shape, Lucas. What happened?”
“I don’t know. We left Shorty’s, you know, that joint on the river. We was kind of making out in my truck . . . I remember taking off my britches, then I don’t remember nothing else.”
I sat down next to him on the bunk. It was made of cast iron and suspended from the wall by chains. A thin mattress covered with brown and yellow stains fit inside the rectangular rim. I picked up his hands in mine and turned them over, then pressed my thumb along his finger joints, all the time watching for a flinch in his face.
“A lady’s going to come here this afternoon to photograph your hands. In the meantime don’t you do anything to bruise them,” I said. “Who’s the girl?”
“Her name’s Roseanne. That’s all she told me. She come in with a mess of other people. They run off and left her and then her and me got to knocking back shots. I wouldn’t rape nobody, Mr. Holland. I wouldn’t beat up a girl, either,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“You don’t remember what you did, Lucas . . . Look at me. Don’t sign anything, don’t answer any of their questions, don’t make a statement, no matter what they promise you. You with me?”
“My father got you to come down here?”
His blue eyes lingered on mine. They were bloodshot and full of pain, but I could see them trying to reach inside my mind.
“You need a friend. We all do at one time or another,” I said.
“I ain’t smart but I ain’t stupid, either, Mr. Holland. I know about you and my mother. I don’t study on it. It ain’t no big deal to me.”
I stood up from the bunk and looked out the window. Down the street people were coming out of a brick church with a white steeple, and seeds from cottonwood trees were blowing in the wind and I could smell chicken frying in the back of a restaurant.
“You want me to represent you?” I said.
“Yes, sir, I’d sure appreciate it.”
He stared emptily at the floor and didn’t look up again.
I STOPPED AT Harley’s office downstairs.
“I’ll be back for his arraignment,” I said.
“Why’d he have to beat the shit out of her?”
“I guess he didn’t top her, either. She probably artificially inseminated herself.”
“Why don’t you shut up, Harley?”
He rubbed his chin with the ball of his thumb, a smile at the corner of his mouth, his eyes wandering indolently over my face.
Outside, as I got into my Avalon, I saw him crossing the courthouse lawn toward me, the sunlight through the trees freckling on his face. I closed my car door and waited. He leaned one arm on the roof, a dark loop of sweat under his armpit, and smiled down at me, his words gathering in his mouth.
“You sure know how to stick it up a fellow’s snout, Billy Bob. I’ll surely give you that, yessir. But at least I ain’t killed my best friend and I don’t know anybody else who has. Have a good day,” he said.
Table of Contents
Q: Who are some of your literary influences?
A: Some of my literary influences are William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warner, James T. Farrel, and Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Q: I've read that you were once a social worker on skid row. Can you describe that experience, and did it influence any of your books?
A: I learned what it was like to live in a slum, where slumlords make large profits off misery. However, 35 years later we put the mentally ill on the street to fend for themselves. Our social evolution seems to have gone into abeyance.
Q: If you had to give up writing, what would you see yourself doing?
A: I would never give up writing!
Q: You split your time between Missoula, Montana, and southern Louisiana. What draws you to these two locations?
A: These are the two places I love the most.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cimarron Rose is a typically offbeat James Lee Burke tale, set in the small town of Deaf Smith, Texas. Defense attorney, Billy Bob Holland, is asked to take on the cases of two young men, and soon finds himself in the middle of a complex set of corrupt relationships that will not be sorted out unless he does it. The book has a fascinating story within a story delivered in the form of a journal inherited from his Great-grandpa Sam that Billy Bob reads almost daily while pursuing the case. The book has fascinating characters whose evil, blindness, and carelessness make the story develop in unexpected ways. Although the book has much violence in it, there is a genuine attempt to keep the violence within some sort of limits that makes the book more appealing. I like books that feature significant character development, and this one does an exemplary job with Billy Bob and Lucas Smothers, who is accused of a rape and murder. These two men are very complicated but in a way that will draw you in, and cause you to root for them to keep following their ideals and dreams. The backdrop is a crooked town, in a corrupt county, with lots of bent government types running around. Although probably no worse than a lot of other places, this book is about a sort of Texas Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a need for someone to do more than what is required, and Billy Bob takes on that role. You will find those who are satisfied with their wealthy lives just as culpable as those who are totally corrupt. Fans of the Dave Robicheaux novels will find this one follows the general approach of those rich, complex stories. Clearly, Billy Bob is a fellow who operates well outside the law, a sort of modern day Lone Ranger. At the same time, he can barely keep himself from going off the deep end mentally. As a result, he is sort of like a ticking time bomb, and you keep expecting him to go off. And he does. The plot culminates in a trial that presents the kind of unexpected developments that you will recognize from Perry Mason stories. After you finish reading this novel, you should think about when you should follow God's law, when men's laws, and when your own conscience. How would you have handled the dilemmas presented here for Billy Bob and Lucas? How could they have handled them better? Live in the present and make a pathway for good! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution
In some ways, this book is not really that different from the Dave Robicheaux series (same author) in tone and pacing. In both series the main characters are strong, silent and violent but... I actually prefer Billy Bob over Dave... I think it's because much of Dave's angst stems from a military background to which I can't relate, and has a lot of alcoholism-taint to his behavior. Billy Bob has issues, but they aren't related to drugs or alcohol and the source of his angst makes sense, even though it's a bit far-fetched at first glance.The plot is quite detailed - lots going on - and there are a couple threads where you wonder if everyone really will get what they deserve (you'll want them to). I think in the end things work out in a sensible way, though I think the "sex interest" was a bit out of place and both oddly started and oddly wrapped up. I did spend most of the novel wondering if (okay, worrying that) one of the "good guys" was going to be killed... that's a good thing because it means the story, and the characters in it, weren't predictable.It is a gritty noir with a decent mystery and distinctive characters. I will be reading the rest in the series.
I've seen Burke praised for his wonderful style. I know an acquiring editor who gave Burke as an example of the best in terms of line-by-line writing, and if you look inside the covers of his books, you'll see him praised as the epitome of hard-boiled detective fiction. I think my problem with him is I really don't like hard-boiled fiction.My first try was Neon Rain, the first Dave Robicheaux book, and I didn't like the book or the hero at all--only read about 60 pages before dropping it, because I don't find attractive the kind of testosterone-laden fic where police officers use their fists rather than their brain to get information out of suspects--Mike Hammer vigilante types do not charm me. Despite that Billy Bob Holland is possibly even worse than Robicheaux in that regard, I did find him more sympathetic, which is probably why I found myself finishing this book. At least when Holland does get violent and takes the law into his own hands, he does so with style. *thinks of a certain scene with a horse ridden into a saloon and a bad guy lassoed* I think the other reason I found Holland somewhat sympathetic is because the stakes are so personal. Holland is a lawyer in a small Texas town and a former Texas Ranger haunted (literally more or less) by his dead partner, L.Q. Navarro. The mystery Holland's trying to solve involves his own unacknowledged son, conceived from an adulterous relationship, Lucas Smothers, accused of rape and murder. There are even (more than one!) strong female characters. However, I don't intend to keep this book on my bookshelf or try more James Lee Burke after this. I think it's that, given I don't care for the grittiness of noir, you really, really have to charm me to keep me reading. Dennis Lehane does that with his Patrick Kenzie series despite it also falling into the hard-boiled genre. Kenizie is such a wise ass, I enjoy the journey, the actual narration, and I love the chemistry between him and his partner Angie. Because of that, I can take the sordidness, the cynicism of the corrupt, violent world they navigate. Holland doesn't have as engaging a voice that I want to follow him further, and more than once he struck me as too-stupid-to-live. That, and testosterone poisoning, is a deal breaker for me. This is a better than average mystery in terms of its prose writing, but it doesn't have the turns of plot or engaging characters to push it to really memorable for me.
In my opinion not u p to Burke's usual Dave Robicheau stories. His "Holland" series is better but Robicheau is the best. All of his characters share certain pasts. They are alcoholic, have made mistakes and are haunted by ghosts. Plays well in Robicheau but becomes a little self-plagerous on the others.
Disappointing I didn't like the over detailed description of the environment and the dialogue was too red neck, which is a shame because the author has created some interesting characters.
Once I started this story and never having become familiar with Mr. Burke's work. I found myself indulging in the atmosphere he so artistically lays out of the south. His characters are real and vivid. I never new what course the story was going to take. Some of the twist caught me off guard although in a pleasant sort of way. He is a maste at setting the tone of a richly detailed crime story of the south. This story is fully rewarding of the award it recieved and Mr. Burke is one the best in the history of this genre.
All I can say, is I've read the first 14 of the Dave Robicheaux series, and just started the Billy Bob Holland series....no matter how large the character or how small - Burke writes each character with such intensity - and so human. I honestly couldn't wait to get home from work this evening to finish the book....