I’ve lost track of how many of James Lee Burke’s entertaining and literarily satisfying Dave Robicheaux detective thrillers I’ve read since 1993 when I was blown away by the sixth book in the series, In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead. In that book, Dave—a good-hearted and brave but troubled Louisiana Sheriff’s Detective—is haunted by (among other things) his tour of duty as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War.
Okay, I just counted. I’ve read all fifteen of these beautifully written (and bestselling) novels that Burke has produced in the last twenty years. I’ve continued to be entertained and impressed by his mastery of character and plot and his evocative, lyrical writing.
Light of the World (Simon & Schuster, 548 pp., $27.99) follows Burke’s highly effective MO: Dave and Clete Purcel (his close friend, former New Orleans Police Department partner, and Marine Vietnam War veteran) pursue some very, very evil people. Dave and Clete do so reluctantly, and only after the evil doers threaten them or their family members.
Much blood is spilled. The main themes are good vs. evil, the importance of family, the thrills and pitfalls of illicit sex, the evils of drugs, the varied forms of sociopathic depravity, the rapaciousness of robber-baron-like industrialists, and the legacy of serving in the Vietnam War. Plus, there’s a giant, complicated, tense, shoot-out at the end.
Not to mention a clever, careening, complicated plot filled with fully drawn characters and wonderfully evocative writing. This time the plot spins out in Montana where Dave and Clete, their adult daughters, and Dave’s wife are spending the summer far away from their native southern Louisiana. They’re staying with an old friend, a leftist novelist and former English professor.
The main bad guy is Asa Surrette, a mentally unstable serial killer who survived what everyone thought was a fatal prison accident and now is threatening to kill Gretchen and Alafair, Clete and Dave’s daughters. The subplots include the machinations of an ultra-rich, land-raping billionaire and his weak-minded, unstable son; the mounting troubles of the son’s philandering wife; the violent world of an ex-con cowboy who may also be out to get Dave and Clete’s families, and the fecklessness of the local Montana cops.
Plus, as always in a Dave Robicheaux novel, there are constant reminders of Dave and Clete’s tours of duty in the Vietnam War, mostly in the form of nightmares and flashbacks. It starts on page three, where Dave, who narrates this tale, provides background on his life and times. “I didn’t ‘serve’ in Southeast Asia,” he says. “I ‘survived’ and watched innocent people and better men than I die in large numbers while I was spared by a hand outside myself.”
In one flashback, Clete is “back in the Central Highlands, on the edge of a ville that stank of duck shit and stagnant water, the flame from the cannon of a Zippo track arching onto the roofs of the hooches, a mamasan pleading hysterically in a language he couldn’t understand.”
Dave, before he stopped abusing alcohol, often “saw members of my platoon crossing a stream in the monsoon season, the rain bouncing on their steel pots and sliding off their ponchos, the mortal wounds they had sustained glowing as brightly as Communion wafers.”
Then there’s Dave describing a recurring nightmare: Images, he says, “will come aborning in your sleep that you cannot deal with during your waking hours: shooting a man who is trying to surrender; firing your automatic weapon until the barrel is almost translucent and your hands are shaking so badly you can’t reload; lying paralyzed on your back in the mud when a medic straddles your hips as a lover might trying to close a sucking chest wound with a cellophane wrapper from a package of cigarettes.”
Those are powerful images convened in powerful language. There’s plenty more of that in Light of the World. I recommend it highly.
Burke’s website is www.jamesleeburke.com