Cimarron Rose

Cimarron Rose by James Lee Burke

What did it win?

Edgar Award 1998

What’s it all about?

A defence attorney uncovers a load of dirty laundry in a small Texas town when his illegitimate son is charged with murder.

Was it really any good?

As a type of genre fiction I thought it left a lot to be desired. Even though it is more a crime novel than a mystery, the solution is still presented in the most perfunctory way imaginable. The answer to the question Whodunnit? is simply tossed at the reader as part of the bloody finale, with little in the way of explanation. (In fact, I’m still not sure what was going on. If there is anyone who can let me know, you have my address.)

There are two reasons for this casual attitude to what is generally considered one of the basic elements in any mystery novel. First of all, Burke is clearly writing in the “tough guy” tradition of crime fiction, which means that the hero doesn’t solve the mystery so much as survive it. Secondly, the plot itself is so crowded with different story lines we all but lose sight of the murder. There is a lack of focus, with no one part of the novel ever seeming more important than the rest.

But back to the bit about tough guy fiction. Burke’s Texas is tough guy territory writ large, with some sort of record being set in this book for the number of references to bulging muscles. The hero can’t resist checking out his buff bod in the mirror when he goes to a health club. The local kids are all football players (the children of ex-football players) juiced on steroids. The menacing serial killer is almost always described as shirtless, the better to show off his gleaming, ripped abs. A tough lady cop is another fit specimen, and even the judge likes to get pumped at the local gym:

Four times a week she lifted free-weights at the health club in a pair of sweatpants and a heavy, long-sleeve jersey. When she did stomach stretches on the bench, her hips and buttocks flattened and seized against her sweats like metal plate.

Of course it would be a shame to have all these muscles and not use them. To say that there is a fight scene in every other chapter of Cimarron Rose could hardly be much of an exaggeration. I can’t think of the last time I read a book that had so many people getting beaten up. And when they aren’t actually fighting they are saying things like “you put your finger in my face again, I’m going to break your jaw,” (etc.). There’s nothing wrong in principle with this brainless testosterone stuff, but after a bit of repetition it starts to wear the reader down. In a book where clues are not as important as instinct you don’t have to pay as much attention to what’s going on. Mystery, while not the most intelligent, is usually the most intellectual of genres. The only part of the body these characters seem not to exercise is their brains.

The story itself is composed in the vernacular of the action/detective movie. The hero, Billy Bob Holland, is one of those defence attorneys who don’t seem capable of handling more than one client at a time. While he maintains an office with a secretary, we never see him doing any legal work aside from representing his son. Seeing as he takes the case pro bono, how does he eat? Other elements, like the ex-cop having to avenge his fallen partner, the western town with a guilty secret, and the notion that there is a certain class in society that see themselves as above the law, will also be familiar to moviegoers (the only audience that matters anyway, as I have often pointed out elsewhere).

Like most popular writers Burke likes to set his work in an intensely moral and providential universe. On one level the symmetry and “good always triumphs over evil” of the novel’s conclusion is laughable, but as a philosophy or belief system it is actually quite close to Stephen King’s, only with human predators replacing King’s bogeymen. The novel’s political angle, pitting the rich families living in the east part of town against the mostly poor but honest working class, is also pretty standard stuff for a morality tale, but Burke gives it enough of an edge to keep it fresh. And any author who goes so far out of his way to make a reference to the Ludlow Massacre scores points with me.

Cimarron Rose is by no means a bad book. Burke is a capable storyteller, even if he has nothing much to say and no interest in the puzzle-solving. And the writing is quite readable in a pulpy, entertainment kind of way. Acknowledging this, however, is about as far as praise can go.

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