I have been reading James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels almost as long as he has been writing them. Since 1987’s The Neon Rain, Burke has immersed readers in a swampy world where honor fights corruption in a sometimes-losing battle against stooping to the enemy’s level. Robicheaux and his best friend, P.I. Clete Purcell, were the Bobbsey twins; men with demons called alcohol and Vietnam who tried to keep order in a corrupt New Orleans Police Department and tried to keep sane in a haunted city soaked through with decay.
New Orleans, and the world, has changed a lot since 1987. So have Robicheaux and Purcell. I have not kept up with all of their adventures, but reading Light of the World, Burke’s twentieth Robicheaux novel, is like saying hello to old friends in the police department, friends who you always worry are going to mess with the wrong bad guys. They always do, but they always get out of it.
The Bobbsey twins long ago long ago retired from the department. Like their creator, they moved out of an iconic urban setting to the mythical American landscape of Montana, a state whose peace is increasingly disturbed, even in areas without cellular service. The change in locale may be unsettling to those familiar with the uneasy Big Easy of the early books. Burke’s New Orleans was as much a character as was Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. But moving to Montana has not changed Burke’s uncanny sense of place and his sense of the uncanny. It is a different wilderness, but it is a wilderness nonetheless, one that runs as uncontrolled as the basest human desires, and whose darkness and open spaces contain mystery and danger. These are not supernaturally themed books, but ghosts and guilt have always tormented Burke’s characters, and this time, his charges pursue a man suspected of being the devil himself.
Early in Light of the World, Burke introduces a character whom he calls one of the most wicked he had ever encountered, but it turns out not to be who we think it is. Wyatt Dixon is one of those Burkeian heroes whom, like Robicheaux and Purcell, are brutal, selfless, and volatile, but ultimately sympathetic. Long time readers will recognize patterns and tropes from previous novels: the Vietnam flashbacks, the sins of the fathers, and the unflinching look at the worst of humanity. Burke’s prose, vivid and romantic when introspective and direct when violence calls for it, propels and carries the converging plot lines into a harrowing crime drama. James Lee Burke’s novels are hard-boiled mystical, melodramatic and self-referential, anxious and gripping. You’ll have trouble sleeping until you’ve finished turning the pages, and even more after you’ve finished.Powered by Sidelines