Death in the Dust Bowl
By MARILYN STASIO in The New York Times
Published: July 16, 2009
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‘Awakening’: Excerpt (pdf) Author Web Site
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Some of these boldly drawn newcomers, like the former owner of a floating casino who relocated to an exclusive community in San Antonio and now runs a sleazy skin club on the highway, are living like “colonials in their own country.” Others are stuck in hellholes like Chapala Crossing, a rusty-dusty town on the Mexican border that takes its visual definition from an abandoned filling station and a crumbling church.
Hackberry Holland, the tall, taciturn sheriff — and cousin of Billy Bob Holland, the lawyer-lawman in a Western crime series by Burke — finds the decomposing corpses of nine Asian women buried in the field behind the church, collectively mowed down by a World War II machine gun and plowed under by a bulldozer. The women were prostitutes and drug mules in an organized-crime ring run by a shadowy Russian mobster based in Phoenix. Whoever among the crime boss’s many competitors ordered the mass murder, it was executed by the legendary hit man Jack Collins, known as Preacher and both feared and respected for being “a mean motor scooter and crazy besides.”
Crazy he may be, but Preacher is one of Burke’s most inspired villains — violent and cruel, but also profoundly moralistic and self-loathing, qualities that he shares with Hackberry Holland, as he informs the guilt-haunted sheriff when they finally meet. Preacher will kill any number of people in imaginative ways, yet spare the foolish men and furious women who are offered to him as sacrificial victims. But while Preacher is a treat, camped out in the desert and howling to nameless ancient gods, you don’t want to underestimate the locals, who have their own deities to answer to. Even Preacher gets that. “These are religious people,” he says. “Disrespect their totems and feel their wrath.” Right now, the native gods are withholding their blessings because of the killers and lowlifes who have brought the blight. But with good guys like Holland on the job, it might yet rain on this parched land.