The Edgar Awards Revisited: Cimarron Rose by James Lee Burke (Best Novel, 1998)
By Angie BarryNovember 8, 2019
You don’t read a book by James Lee Burke. You experience it.
But my confidence was cosmetic. Neither I nor anyone I knew in Deaf Smith had any influence over Vernon Smothers. He believed intransigence was a virtue, a laconic and mean-spirited demeanor was strength, reason was a tool the rich used to keep the poor satisfied with their lot, and education amounted to reading books full of lies written by history’s victors.
You don’t read a book by James Lee Burke.
You experience it.
Burke’s electric prose is like a whirlwind, scooping you up and carrying you along as it wreaks its devastation. Equally beautiful and horrific, his stories are carnivorous: alluring and dangerous. You can’t look away because you’re transfixed—and because God (and Burke) only knows what will happen next.
This is worthy of college syllabi.
Cimarron Rose—his fifteenth novel—is the first to introduce ex-Texas Ranger/current defense attorney Billy Bob Holland and the corrupt town of Deaf Smith, Texas. It opens with a familiar enough situation: a teenaged girl has been assaulted and murdered. Her teenaged boyfriend was found unconscious at the scene and has been duly charged with the crimes.
But it only takes a couple of pages for everything to skew into unexpected directions. The accused, Lucas Smothers, is Billy Bob’s illegitimate son. The sheriff’s department is suppressing evidence. The richest man in Deaf Smith, Jack Vanzandt, is involved somehow. A psychopath in the next cell has his sights set on the whole town, but Billy Bob in particular. And a female deputy isn’t at all what she seems.
Oh, and Billy Bob talks to the ghost of his best friend, a man he accidentally killed on a vigilante drug raid gone wrong.
Deaf Smith is a place of vast contradictions, a place where the elite sip cocktails in tennis whites at a manicured country club while bodies are dumped into hog wallows down the road. Where the sons of the rich can cruise the streets inviolate, hopped up on every drug known to man, while others are beaten bloody by deputies in the ditches.
From the screen porches and elevated bandstand to the dance floor and the long, railed bar, the faces of the patrons were rippled with neon, their voices hoarse with their own conversation, their eyes lighted like people who had survived a highway catastrophe and knew they were eternal. When people went to Shorty’s, they went to score—booze, barbeque, homegrown reefer, crystal meth, a stomp-ass brawl out in the trees, or the horizontal bop in the backseat—and they came from every background to do it: ranchers, sawmill workers, oil field roughnecks, businessmen, ex-cons, dope mules, college kids, blue-collar housewives dumping their husbands, pipeliners, hillbilly musicians, pool hustlers, steroid freaks with butchwax in their hair, and biker girls in black leather whose purples makeup bloomed like a death wish on their cheeks.
But the revelers were two nights’ distance from the rape and murder of a girl in an abandoned picnic ground down the road, and their unfocused smiles never left their faces at the mention of her name.
As the story careens from Lucas’ case to the constant threat of the sociopath Garland T. Moon, from the corruption in the sheriff’s department to the mysterious mission of Deputy Mary Beth Sweeney, from the gaping class divide between the Vanzandts and everyone else, even into the distant past where Billy Bob’s saddle preacher grandfather is in turmoil over the lady outlaw the Rose of Cimarron, we’re pinballed between vibrant characters—the scarred ex-football star Bunny Vogel, drug runner/deadly DEA asset Felix Ringo, the ghostly L.Q. Navarro, honest prosecutor Marvin Pomroy, mobster Sammy Mace, loyal Girl Friday and P.I. Temple Carrol, the unstable Darl Vanzandt, Billy Bob’s cheeky but innocent young neighbor Pete—and situations full of bloody potential.
Menace imbues the novel from start to finish. Violence occurs without warning. Between the razor-sharp descriptions and hardboiled dialogue, there’s little time to anticipate the next curveball before it strikes us out.
The best we can do is hang on for the wild ride and try to catch our breath in the few moments of calm.
Cimarron Rose netted Burke his second Edgar in a decade (his first was for 1990’s Black Cherry Blues), and it’s no mystery as to why.
Plenty of novels feel like movies in the making, but few are as cinematic as Burke’s. His blending of Western, mystery, and small-town drama (that somehow still feels larger than life) is magnificent. Cimarron is that rare novel that defies firm genre labels, elevating them all to a higher plateau. This is pulp fiction as conducted by a virtuoso. This is worthy of college syllabi.
It’s the moment every decent cop dreads. It comes unexpectedly, out of nowhere, like a freight train through a wall. Later, when you play the tape over and over again, seeking justification, wondering if there were alternatives, you’re left invariably with the last frame of the spool, the only one that counts, and it tells you daily what your true potential is.
The masterful weaving of a dozen plots and characters is a mind-boggling balancing act. In less than 300 pages, a staggering amount is packed in and yet it never feels scattershot. This isn’t chaos without meaning. Everything serves a purpose. Everything is in its place for a reason. And the climactic tangle of personal vendettas, justice, self-fulfilling prophecies, and fate is deeply, deeply satisfying.
Burke has been one of the biggest names in mystery for decades for a reason. The man has a Voice, and he twists the usual tropes in exciting, unexpected ways. He defies expectations at every turn, making him an author even the jaded will love, refreshing and classic, a mad contradiction.
And he’s accumulated most of the awards out there: the Hammett Prize in 1994, a Grand Prix in 1992, not to mention a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988 (something practically unheard of for a mystery writer). And besides his two Edgars for Best Novel, he was named Grand Master in 2009. Pretty damn impressive.
Notes from the 1998 Edgar Awards:
- For Best Novel, Burke beat out Bill Pronzini (A Wasteland of Strangers), Ian Rankin (Black & Blue), Deborah Crombie (Dreaming of the Bones), and Mark T. Sullivan (The Purification Ceremony).
- The Grand Master was Barbara Mertz (also known as Elizabeth Peters—the Amelia Peabody Egyptology mysteries—and Barbara Michaels, romance novelist).
- Best Young Adult went to Will Hobbs for Ghost Canoe.
- Editor Hiroshi Hayakawa (of Japan’s major mystery magazine, Hayakawa’s Mystery Magazine) took home the Ellery Queen Award.
- Lawrence Block nabbed the Edgar for Best Short Story for “Keller on the Spot”. Other nominees included Stuart M. Kaminsky (“Find Miriam” AND “The Man Who Beat the System”), Jeffery Deaver (“The Kneeling Soldier”), and Simon Brett (“Ways to Kill a Cat”).
- Best Motion Picture Screenplay went to Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson for the stellar L.A. Confidential (Helgeland, funnily enough, was also nominated for Conspiracy Theory).
- And the Raven went to editor Sylvia K. Burack.
- Joseph Kanon won Best First Novel for his book Los Alamos, and the other nominees included K.j.a Wishnia (23 Shades of Black), Suzanne Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood), Philip Reed (Bird Dog), and Lisa See (Flower Net).
- Laura Lippman took home the Edgar for Best Paperback Original for her novel Charm City. She edged out Susan Rogers Cooper (Home Again, Home Again), Gloria White (Sunset and Santiago), Stuart M. Kaminsky (Tarnished Icons), and Margaret Frazer (The Prioress’ Tale).
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Angie Barry returns to review Mr. White’s Confession by Robert Clark, the 1999 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.