'Light of the World': James Lee Burke's portable evil

Sheriff's Deputy Dave Robicheaux gets out of the Big Easy for wide-open Montana.

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Fans of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels know what to expect going in: Robicheaux will take on evil perpetrated by maniacal criminals who are aided and abetted by rich and powerful families.

Robicheaux's friend, the stalwart -- and seemingly indestructible -- Clete Purcell, will have his back while simultaneously taking up with the most unsuitable woman in the vicinity. Both men, products of tragic childhoods, and veterans of combat duty in Vietnam and the New Orleans police department, never hesitate to "paint the trees" in pursuit of justice.


By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster ($27.99).

As a result of alcohol-fueled choices, both men ruined their big city law enforcement careers. Dave is currently a sheriff's deputy in New Iberia, La., and Clete a private investigator working bail-skip and other bottom-dwelling cases.

While this all sounds formulaic, what the reader also gets is evocative, lyrical and haunting descriptions of Robicheaux's birthplace and its inhabitants, which suffuse and support the story. Louisiana is as much a character in the books as Robicheaux and his friends and family. Through hurricanes, oil spills and other environmental and political disasters, his knowledge and love of his environs make his crusades personal.

An alcoholic in recovery, Dave Robicheaux is visited by ghosts of the past, and his musings have deep roots in mythology and mysticism. He is a complex, thoughtful, damaged and violent man, unlike any protagonist in modern mystery fiction.

"Light of the World" takes Robicheaux out of Louisiana for a return visit to Montana to visit his professor/author friend, Albert Hollister. Robicheaux's wife Molly, his daughter Alafair, Clete and Clete's daughter Gretchen accompany him. Evil follows.

The nature of evil is a theme also familiar to Mr. Burke's readers. The origins of evil haunt Robicheaux: "Were some people made different in the womb, born without a conscience, intent on destroying everything that is good in the world? Or could a black wind blow the weather vane in the wrong direction for any of us, and reshape our lives and turn us into people we no longer recognize?"

Robicheaux encounters the soulless nadir of humanity in the form of Asa Surrette, a Kansas serial killer. Previously thought dead, Surrette is beyond both cunning and depravity, with the ability to insert himself into his victims' lives before he kills them in horrible ways.

The reasons for Surrette's presence in Montana unfold and coincidence abounds. Local law enforcement is so dubious, stupid or crooked that Clete at one point vows, "If I get back to New Orleans, I'm never going to leave."

It becomes clear that stopping Surrette themselves is the only choice for Robicheaux and company, prompting their host Albert to ask, "Do you people carry a fight with you every place you go?"

Montana's wide-open spaces, the protagonists' lack of local credentials and the additional animus from a local rich and powerful family hamper their mission. The pursuit of Surrette is ad hoc by all players, separately or in twos. At some point, it seems it might have been useful for everyone to sit down and discuss strategy.

Quibbles with plot and place are perhaps beside the point. Mr. Burke's books are beyond traditional procedural mysteries. You won't find better writing in, or arguably out of, the genre. While uncommon in almost every way, his characters are knowable and very real.

Dave Robicheaux fatalistically takes on society's burdens when social remedies falter, remarking that "Sometimes, at least in your head, you have to link arms with Doc Holliday and the Earp boys and stroll on down to the O.K. Corral and chat up the Clantons in a way they understand."

Over the years, Mr. Burke has used his characters to become more outspoken about the ways the land and its citizens are mistreated by those who have derived benefit from both. He assigns equal blame to both governmental and corporate abusers.

Mr. Burke has made Montana his second home and the impact of gas and oil drilling on his adopted state and the Canadian Rockies is woven into the story. For this reason, the change of venue makes sense. But, I'm with Clete. Never leave Louisiana.


Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (guzzka@comcast.net). First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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