Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Burke has perfected art of crime-writing

Latest work proves he's a master of mayhem

By David Caudill dcaudill@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A danger lurks in reading a lot of James Lee Burke. It's easy to let your appreciation slip. This prolific and highly praised crime novelist sets his stories of sleazy, homicidal characters in the hot, dank Louisiana Bayou.

        You immerse yourself in this world, and the only way out is to root for Mr. Burke's lead character. In his latest book, Jolie Blon's Bounce, that would be old hand Dave Robicheaux.

        Regular readers of Mr. Burke will recognize the small-town lawman/family man. New Iberia, La., west of New Orleans, is his hometown. Robicheaux worked as a detective in New Orleans, but has returned to New Iberia as a deputy sheriff.

        He is far from perfect, but he is a man of principle, a man of moral backbone. A man who won't let a woman be slapped around in his presence more than once.

        His character flaw is a propensity to rage. His enemies need to heed his warnings or they become extremely sorry — or extremely dead — by book's end.

        In Jolie Blon's Bounce (the name comes from a Cajun song), Mr. Burke's 21st novel, Robicheaux is in the hunt for the killers of two young women — one a nice kid, the other a prostitute and daughter of a button man for the mob.

        One killing looks easy, but that's a set-up. The second is probably connected, but how it might be isn't clear.

        The cases give Robicheaux plenty of opportunity to drop in on the usual suspects: a man so evil he's more demon than human; a gifted Cajun-blues singer; the father of the murdered prostitute who has killed a handful of men because it's his job; and a well-connected lawyer with roots in the Old South's aristocracy.

        These character types allow Mr. Burke to riff on favorite themes: corruption in high places, underappreciated Cajun culture, the treasure a loving family can be to a man with a drifting soul, the violence embedded in American society. The themes emerge amid the occasionally tiresome but always precise descriptions of the Bayou's natural beauty.

        Mr. Burke loves to write about what the day looks and feels like: sunlight slanting through a persimmon tree or playing on the water, the pervasive heat that wilts body and spirit. So, even though Robicheaux stays busy making bad guys pay for sins, he lives at the water's edge with his wife and daughter, and runs a bait shop. He rents pirouges (a boat like a canoe) to fishermen and gets out to throw a line himself when he can. He's as skilled at catching fish as he is at catching meatheads.

        Robicheaux bears down on the meatheads in this book, and his investigation tumbles violently to resolution. This is what Mr. Burke does best. He creates bad guys so despicable, readers can't wait to see them come to a reckoning.

        His evil people pay for it; the evils of society are addressed less resolutely.

        Even though a persistent compassion for America's disenfranchised minorities is evident, what's missing is an admirable character from these ranks. African-Americans aren't trustworthy or likable. They're sympathetic characters, maybe, but not anyone his protagonists would want watching their backs.

        And though Robicheaux clearly loves his wife, Bootsie, in this book she's a prop. She's there when a great sex scene is in order, but she's out of his life as quickly as he can back his pickup out the driveway.

        Granted, Mr. Burke is a crime novelist. He has a successful formula, highly readable when you want to scratch that itch. But it would be interesting to see a writer of this caliber apply his imagination to more than murder and mayhem.


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