If through some trick of genetic engineering you could combine the writing DNA of Hammett, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, James Lee Burke would be the product. His hero, Dave Robicheaux, is an updated version of Hammett’s Sam Spade, a scarred and battered warrior desperately, wearily clinging to righteousness in a world where virtue has become relative. His cast of characters are lifted straight from a Tennessee Williams play, each of them a complex, heartbreaking composite of virtue and moral corruption – the only thing that varies is the extent to which each of them forges an uneasy balance between these essential elements of their nature. And his plots are Faulknerian in scope, gothic studies of good and evil laced with Biblical themes, set against the moral corruption of the American South, communicated in prose whose beauty provides a constant ironic counterpoint to plots rife with brutality and moral horror.
In this outing, Dave is recovering from wounds sustained in a horrific shootout with villains in the heart of a mist-shrouded bayou (an event recounted in The Glass Rainbow, the prequel to this novel) when he receives a call from a young woman in trouble … because isn’t that how most chivalric quests begin? Soon he and his partner Clete Purcell find themselves entangled with a Southern aristocrat who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal, a bigoted ex-sheriff, corrupt oil company executives, an albino with a taste for medieval cruelty, a treacherous Southern belle, and a Miami hitman (hitwoman?) in a tale that involves stolen/forged artwork, human trafficking, drugs, and oil industry malfeasance in the wake of the BP oil spill. Between alternating scenes of breathtaking beauty and equally breathtaking violence Burke explores a variety of disturbing themes, the chief of which seem to be: To what extent are evil means (war, violence) justified to accomplish virtuous ends? Is “reality” merely a personal construct? Do we ever finish paying for the mistakes we make? Are there some actions that can never be redeemed?
Much like a Hammett novel, it’s probably better if you don’t spend too much time trying to analyze the plot, because it has more twists and turns than the channels of a Louisiana bayou. (Has anyone ever figured out who killed the chauffeur in Hammett’s The Big Sleep? Does anyone care?) In fact, I get the sense that some of the plotlines are deliberately left hanging … that we’ll be seeing some of these baddies again in Robicheaux’s next outing. Better to just sit back and let Burke’s gorgeously sensual prose sweep you along for the ride. And if the last three horrific chapters of the tale don’t leave you exhausted and emotionally drained, then the Greeks were all wrong about the whole “catharsis” thing.
I find it astonishing that after 18 Robicheaux novels, James Lee Burke is still capable of such luminescent writing and wrenching storytelling. I remain convinced that if this guy were writing anything but crime fiction, universities would be teaching Burke alongside the works of Faulker, O’Connor, Walker, Welty and other great Southern novelists.