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Margaret Cannon

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RAIN GODS By James Lee Burke, Simon & Schuster, 434 pages, $19

Someone once told me that all great novels are about the Four Last Things: heaven, hell, death and judgment. If that is so, then James Lee Burke has written a lot of great novels and Rain Gods is certainly one of the greatest. If your faith wavers, read this book.

This isn't a Dave Robicheaux or a Billy Bob Holland story, although a central character, Sheriff Hackberry Holland, is Billy Bob's cousin. But this Holland is over 70, working out the end of a long life. He lives in the flat, overheated land outside San Antonio, Tex., and his story begins: "On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach-paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression ..."

The young man calls 911 and reports shooting in the area, a lot of shooting. Then he hangs up the phone and runs. When Sheriff Holland arrives at the scene, it's pure horror. Nine young Asian women are dead and hastily buried in a mass grave. They have been machine-gunned and at least one was still alive when she was buried. Who could have transported these innocent women to this desolate spot and murdered them. And for what end?

The trail soon leads Hack Holland to Preacher Jack Collins, a psychopath who kills to order. Preacher believes himself to be a fine servant of the Almighty, but he's also careful to leave no clues, no trails, no witnesses. The young man who called 911 is ex-Marine Pete Flores, who was severely wounded in Iraq. Pete and his girlfriend, Vikki, are in Jack's sights and on the run. Hackberry and Preacher, along with an assortment of other thugs, are also on their trail.

As the chase plays out, Burke, in the character of Holland, ruminates and meditates about Last Things. Hackberry, like all classic detectives, is a man of honour and integrity walking through a fallen world. Raymond Chandler railed about dope, gambling and prostitution. Burke's demons are cowardice, betrayal and the weakness of soul known as anomie. Before Rain Gods is over, he has confronted them all. Skip all the philosophy, and you have a solid conventional novel with great characters in a superbly crafted setting. But it's the heaven, hell, death and judgment that make this a novel by James Lee Burke.

THE ARMS MAKER OF BERLIN By Dan Fesperman, Knopf, 367 pages, $32

I have always loved history and historians. The whole process of digging into the past is pure pleasure, so when I find a novel with a historian as detective, it's a book from heaven. There is a touch of Indiana Jones in Professor Nat Turnbull, specialist in the German Resistance, right down to the doe-eyed girls in his classes. But Turnbull doesn't have to wield a whip or carry a gun. He just has to unravel a cleverly coded message left by a dead friend.

The friend is 85-year-old historian Gordon Wolfe, Turnbull's friend and mentor. The friends have had a falling-out, but when Wolfe's wife calls to report that her husband is in jail, accused of stealing government documents, Turnbull heads out to help. He arrives to find that Gordon is dead, apparently of a drug overdose, in jail. Because of the charges, his career, after lasting more than 60 years, is in ashes.

Just what led to Wolfe's death, natural or otherwise, is the jumping-off point for the plot. It's complex and convoluted and leads back to Germany in the 1930s, a Resistance movement called the White Rose and a grand, passionate love affair, and then back to recent history. The East German Stasi gets a moment and some fiery Middle Eastern hit men come out to chase Nat and a German historian named Marta as they fight for the cache of documents that Gordon Wolfe died for.

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