He had me from “hello”
I like James Lee Burke so much that when his newest book came out – Pegasus Descending – I went ahead and pre-ordered it in hardcover. We usually wait for books to come out in paperback; they don’t hurt so much when you accidentally fall asleep and the book falls on your face.
My first James Lee Burke mystery was A Morning for Flamingos. Here is the opening paragraph:
“We parked the car in front of the parish jail and listened to the rain beat on the roof. The sky was black, the windows fogged with humidity, and white veins of lightening pulsated in the bank of thunderheads out on the Gulf.
‘Tante Lemon’s going to be waiting for you,’ Lester Benoit, the driver, said. He was, like me, a plainclothes detective with the sheriff’s department. He wore sideburns and a mustache, and had his hair curled and styled in Lafayette. Each year he arranged to take his vacation during the winter in Miami BEach so that he would have a year-round tan, and each year he bought whatever clothes people were wearing there. Even though he had spent his whole life in New Iberia, except for time in the service, he always looked as if he had just stepped off a plane from somewhere else.”
Holy Smokes! He had me from”hello!” This beautiful prose in a detective series?
The main character in the New Iberia (Louisiana) series is Dave Robicheaux, a deeply flawed sometimes-detective. A former drunk, he follows the 12 step programs, attends meetings, and introduces us to the complexities of crime and detective work in the arcane society of deep-South Louisiana. Occasionally, he will fall off the wagon, and you can feel it happening with anticipation and dread. You can hear the seductive siren of Jim Beam calling to him in his weakest moments. I’ve never been a drunk, and I’ve never lived in Louisiana, but thanks to James Lee Burke, I feel like I have. He puts us inside the skin of Dave Robicheaux, for better or worse.
He also takes us inside the social issues – race relations, big oil, organized crime, organized gambling, and all the other issues of louche Louisiana. Burke’s most deeply held convictions come through shining clearly – that crime not only damages the innocent, but damages those who choose the criminal track. His greatest scorn is for those who commit the crimes, and then crave social respectability.
Burke’s books are not only intensely visual, they are deeply sensual – you hear the sounds of the crickets, you taste the crawdads at the celebration on the village green, you suffer the beatings, and your skin crawls when you meet some of the nastiest-every day villains you will ever meet. They all seem to swarm to New Orleans and New Iberia.
This is from Pegasus Decending:
“It was hot and breathless outside, and the sound of dry thunder, like crackling cellophane, leaked from clouds that gave no rain. Through the back window I could see vapor lamps burning in City Park and a layer of dust floating on the bayou’s surface. I could see the shadows of the oaks moving in my yard when the wind puffed through the canopy. I could see beads of humidity, as bright as quicksilver, slipping down the giant serrated leaves of the philodendron, and the humped shape of a gator lumbering crookedly across the mudband, suddenly plunging nto water and disappearing inside the lily pads. I saw all these things just as I heard helicopter blades soaring by overhead, and for just a second, I saw Dallas Klein getting to his knees on a hot street swirling with yellow dust in Opa-Locka, Florida, just like a man preparing himself for his own decapitation.”
Wow. Doesn’t that just take your breath away?
James Lee Burke has won an astonishingly rare two Edgar Awards – Best Mystery of the year. His heros are gritty, there is violence and bloodshed – these are not feel-good stories. And yet, in small moments, there is redemption. His hero is both self-destructive and takes good care of his wild housecat, Snuggs, and his three legged racoon, Tripod. In this book he is on his third wife – I wonder if he kills off his current wife when the author is angry with his real-life wife? He wouldn’t be the first author to take his ire out on his characters!
If you like a good, can’t-put-it-down read, if you can handle the brutality of police work, and if you like a book that transports you to a new culture and new location and makes you feel like you have lived there, then James Lee Burke will delight you. I am so addicted, that I pre-order his books when I know a new one is coming out. He is that good.
Dave Robicheaux Novels:
The Neon Rain
Black Cherry Blues
A Morning for Flamingos
A stained White Radiance
In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead
Dixie City Jam
Purple Cane Road
Jolie Blon’s Bounce
Last Car to the Elysian Fields
Billy Bob Holland Novels (Montana deeply flawed, former alcoholic detective a lot like Dave Robicheaux)
In the Moon of Red Ponies
Half of Paradise
To the Bright and Shining Sun
Lay Down my Sword and Shield
Two for Texas
The Lost Get-Back Boogie
White Doves at Morning
James Lee Burke(R) in New Iberia