The Holland clan of Texas lawmen and lawyers who populate one of the author’s several crime series expands its family tree backward to the early 20th century with the exploits of a truly ornery good guy and his scary Austrian nemesis.
In 1916, Hackberry Holland, sometime Texas Ranger and city marshal, comes upon a religious artifact that belongs to the Austrian, an arms merchant named Arnold Beckman. The ruckus sparked by this jeweled chalice entangles the wife Hackberry never got around to divorcing, the estranged mother of his son, as well as the son himself, who returns to the U.S. after being wounded at the Second Battle of the Marne. Burke (Wayfaring Stranger, 2014, etc.) sets his flawed hero—booze, blind rages, and bad choices—in the well-trodden fictional territory where the Old West is reluctantly giving way to modern times. The prolific author does a good job of refreshing it with a few characters who have adapted the old ways to new schemes, from the opium trade to the movies. By contrast, Hackberry is the archetype who resists the young century’s novelties—his first effort to drive a motor car is a welcome comic episode. The prevailing atmosphere is gloom, as past sins and poor judgment haunt and bedevil Hackberry, forcing him into the dark world of Beckman, a man who enjoys inflicting physical and psychological torture. The well-paced action features the usual men at play with fists and guns, but Burke also offers three strong women with pivotal roles, one of whom could be a match for any of the tough guys.
Burke’s sure hand for crisp dialogue and a compelling story falters with the philosophizing he allows his wayward lawman to wallow in a bit too often. But then, resourceful warriors from Odysseus on have tended to ruminate.