FEAST DAY OF FOOLS. By James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster. 463 pages. $27.

The real crime here is calling James Lee Burke a mystery writer.

He writes masterfully, evoking the best images this side of Cormac McCarthy as he spins beautiful tales of horrible people doing terrible things.

With its lyrical prose, philosophical hero and thoughtful plotting, Burke's Dave Robicheaux series rightfully has been compared to the late John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series. But Burke has three recurring series, not one.

"Feast Day of Fools" is the third novel starring small-town Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland, an old man, a spiritual man and a fair, if sometimes stubborn, hero. Next to Robicheaux and his sidekick, Clete, Holland may be Burke's richest character. His memories of war and longing for his dead wife bring a level of humanity to Holland rarely found in thrillers.

In this novel, Holland is confronted with professional killers and plunged into the world of illegal immigration. Burke has never shied away from topical subjects, or from offering his own thoughts on them. They are not the thoughts of your typical lawman, either.

When a town drunk witnesses the execution of a man at the hands of a gang, the sheriff, his deputy and sometimes-girlfriend are pulled into a complicated tale of CIA operatives, a woman providing safe haven to immigrants and a sociopath they thought was dead.

While "Feast Day of Fools" is a solid novel with an abundance of rich characters, it is not Burke's finest. Echoes of the last Holland novel are a bit too clear, and his villains are much more well-spoken and better-read than almost any true criminal.

While that is somewhat distracting at times, it is forgivable. Rarely do mysteries challenge readers this much. Or linger so long after they are finished.

Burke continues to juggle his various series with great skill, and hopefully this won't be the last we see of Holland or all his wonderful, human flaws.