By Bruce Fretts
June 22, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Bitterroot

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James Lee Burke divides his time between New Iberia, La., and Missoula, Mont. He’s explored bayou country in his bestselling mystery series featuring New Orleans ex-cop Dave Robicheaux (one of those books, ”Heaven’s Prisoners,” was made into the muddled 1996 Alec Baldwin film of the same name). With his new novel, Bitterroot, Burke sets foot on his other stomping ground, Big Sky country.

Billy Bob Holland, the Texas attorney from Burke’s ”Cimarron Rose” (1997) and ”Heartwood” (1999), travels to western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley at the invitation of his friend Tobin ”Doc” Voss. After Doc is charged with murdering the men who gang-raped his 16-year-old daughter, Maisey, Billy Bob comes to his defense.

Burke brilliantly contrasts the region’s natural beauty with the ugliness of these violent acts. ”It was a scene from the brush of Norman Rockwell,” he writes of the valley. ”But inside the hospital, Maisey Voss was plugged into a morphine-laced IV, her body strung with purple and yellow bruises that went into the bone.” Injuries have also been inflicted on the landscape: Doc has been protesting the area’s simultaneous environmental and cultural pollution, as cyanide (used to leach gold) has seeped into the local rivers, and white-supremacist militias have built armed compounds nearby.

The author aims some of his fiercest barbs at these neo-Nazi thugs. ”They’re cowards,” Billy Bob observes acutely. ”They fear blacks and Jews and locate in places where they’ll never have to face them on equal terms.” When the lawyer discovers the government has allowed the terrorists’ illegal activity to continue in hopes that it might expose their connection to the Oklahoma City bombing, ”Bitterroot” resonates with a chilling timeliness.

The novel’s vast cast also encompasses boozehound mystery writer Xavier Girard (like Burke, a two-time Edgar award winner), his cokehead movie-star wife, Holly, and mobster Nicki Molinari, the subject of Xavier’s latest literary endeavor and the object of Holly’s adulterous affections. Even individual characters have led multiple lives: Billy Bob was a Houston cop, a Texas Ranger, and a Phoenix U.S. attorney before opening his practice in Deaf Smith, Tex., while Doc is a pacifist-turned-Navy-SEAL-turned-poet-turned-physician.

With such a complex set of personalities, it’s not surprising that the plot becomes a little convoluted. Story lines spiral out to include an Internet pedophilia ring and a Crow Indian undercover ATF operative named Sue Lynn Big Medicine, as well as Billy Bob’s reunion with his illegitimate 20-year-old son, fatal attraction to a local doctor, and on-again, off-again relationship with a female PI. Love scenes aren’t Burke’s strong suit; no matter how hard he tries, they come out sounding like bad romance novels (”I was inside…all her pink warmth and the caress and charity and heat of her thighs”).

Bitterroot might be easier to swallow if Billy Bob spent more time lawyering (there isn’t a single courtroom scene in 334 pages) and less time conversing with the ghost of L.Q. Navarro, a Texas Ranger whom he accidentally killed during a drug raid in Mexico. Burke powerfully evokes a man who’s literally haunted by his past, but the device would seem fresher if spectres weren’t popping up all over TV (”The West Wing,” ”Six Feet Under”), not to mention in plays by that Shakespeare guy.

Yet all these sins are forgiven when Burke spins his beautifully crafted prose. He pens the best dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard, putting many of ”Bitterroot”’s finest lines in the mouth of world-weary local sheriff J.T. Cain. ”Son, there’s three categories of stupid,” the lawman tells the hardheaded Billy Bob. ”’Stupid,’ ‘stupider,’ and ‘stupidest.’ But I think you’re establishing new standards.” Burke is particularly adept at physical details, whether they’re about people (aging actress Holly Girard is described as looking like ”melted wax somebody put in the refrigerator”) or places. Wiseguy Nicki Molinari’s tacky ranch is limned as ”out of sync with itself, as though it had been designed and put together by someone who had toured the West and wasn’t quite sure what he remembered about it.” ”Bitterroot” proves that James Lee Burke has done more than tour the West, and is quite sure what he remembers about it.

Bitterroot

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