Reviewed by Jim McCarthy
James Lee Burke is a master wordsmith and artist who can paint descriptive scenes with a flourish of language, depicting sometimes horrific events as well as landscapes. Burke’s collection of works chronicling the often bizarre crimes committed in his hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana, is at once entertaining and mesmerizing, especially when the protagonist detective Dave Robicheaux is assisted by his private investigator friend Clete Purcel.
Robicheauz and Purcel, each with their own shortcomings, face violent crimes perpetrated by generally repulsive beings. It’s the rare occasion, except for victims, that any sympathy can be found for their adversaries. In some of Burke’s earlier Robicheaux adventures, the detective is plagued by his delirium tremens as well as nightmare visions of Civil War ghosts. Amid this swirl of crime, dreams, and alcoholic fog, Robicheaux pursues his quarries and renders justice—sometimes fatally—to his nemeses.
A reader need not appreciate such stories to enjoy Burke’s lyrical construction of language. The opening lines to this novel:
Desmond Cormier’s success story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rages-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the graves of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages. That is not meant to be a cynical statement. Desmond’s story was a piece of Americana, assuring us that wealth and a magical kingdom are available to the least of us, provided we do not awaken our own penchant for breaking our heroes on a medieval wheel, and reviving them later, safely downwind from history.
One can feel the invitation from this description to a gripping story involving American exceptionalism, savagery, and success. Being addicted to Burke and Robicheaux is a pleasant experience.