Written by James Lee Burke — In this latest stand alone novel, one of America’s most celebrated crime fiction novelists transports us back to 1950s Houston. Many who reminisce love to believe that this decade was a golden period in American history. World War II was over, the economy was booming, and the hippy dream was yet to happen, let alone turn sour.
If it is the golden era of modern America, nobody has told 17-year-old Aaron Holland Broussard. His father spends his evenings in The Icehouse drinking to forget the nerve-shattering experience of going over the top in WWI and his mother is a distant, fragile woman. Not even electro-shock therapy can dispel her demons. His only friend is Saber Bledsoe, another son of an alcoholic father, but a less serious soul than Aaron, and the one most likely to get the two friends into trouble.
The formative experience of Aaron’s life occurs when he puts himself in the middle of an argument between Grady Harrison and his girlfriend Valerie Epstein. Harrison is the son of one of Houston’s right wing elite, and a known troublemaker. For a blue collar boy like Aaron to humiliate this particular little prince in public is to invite certain trouble.
So Aaron and Saber find themselves braced by a number of threats. A greaser gang comes to their high school looking for trouble, and one of their teachers fingers the boys as snitches. Meanwhile, Aaron’s fledgling romance with Valerie arouses the jealousy in Harrison, a boy whose father has gangster connections. Aaron’s inability to control his sudden violent rages and Saber’s smart mouth lead to a late night confrontation on the road, in which one of the gangsters loses an eye. With the law to one side and criminals to the other, the boys are accused of stealing Harrison’s car, which itself might be stuffed with the profits of Murder Inc’s various illegal activities.
There is quite a lot going on in the plot, and early on it’s hard to get a sense of where the story is heading. However, such a multi-faceted story, both in terms of plot and the themes explored, sets it apart from most popular crime novels and Burke brings a sense of urgency towards the climax.
The Jealous Kind is an ambitious novel. The coming of age story is timeless in its theme as is the exploration of friendship and loyalty between Aaron and Saber. Burke expertly depicts the embarrassments and conflicts inherent as well as the bonds between the two boys. There is also a timely quality to the exploration of race and class in 1950s American society which chimes absolutely with the present day. We are shown the intangible, but very real rules which govern the behaviour of and interaction between the different social classes and ethnicities whether it be the black veterans working at the auto garage who aren’t allowed to collect money from white customers, or Aaron’s and Saber’s reluctance to enter into Houston’s more moneyed neighbourhoods.
Burke has had a long, successful career and has won the Edgar Award twice, as well as the CWA Gold Dagger. He has written over 30 novels including the Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland series as well as a smaller number of stand alones. But The Jealous Kind may just be his best book. Bravo.
Take a look at Grit Lit: An intro to Southern Noir, for more crime fiction from the American South.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars