Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: "Light of the World" by James Lee Burke

At one point during Light of the World, James Lee Burke's 20th novel featuring Louisiana sheriff's detective Dave Robicheaux, one of the characters says to Dave, "Do you people carry a fight with you every place you go?"

That seems an appropriate question for this book, which finds Dave, his wife, Molly, his adopted daughter, Alafair, and his best friend and partner-in-crime, private investigator and human wrecking ball Clete Purcell, vacationing in Montana at the home of a friend, a famed novelist and environmentalist. They've not been in Montana long when Alafair, out for a job, early one evening, is nearly shot by an arrow. At first, suspicions point to Wyatt Dixon, an emotionally disturbed rodeo cowboy, but then it appears that a far more dangerous nemesis is after Alafair—convicted serial killer and sadist Asa Surette, who became obsessed with her after she did a series of interviews with him for a book she was planning to write. The thing is, Surette was allegedly killed—in Kansas—when the van transporting him to another prison was involved in a massive car crash.

But having a deviously intelligent, dangerous, and megalomaniacal serial killer coming after his daughter isn't all Dave has to confront. When Clete's daughter, the deeply troubled former mob assassin-turned-documentary filmmaker (yeah, you read that right) Gretchen Horowitz, comes to Montana, it isn't long before she runs afoul of a corrupt police detective, who abuses her physically and mentally, among others who aren't happy that the subject of her next documentary is shale oil extraction. And when Clete gets involved with the wife of the heir to a wealthy oil magnate, it's just the icing on the cake.

Dave's need to try and do the right thing continuously clashes with his need to protect his family and his belief that people who do wrong should pay. He's never quite comfortable when dealing with corruption, either among those sworn to uphold the law or those who feel they're above it. As one character tells Dave, "But I think you have an agenda. You resent others for their wealth. Everywhere you look, you see plots and conspiracies at work, corporations destroying the planet, robbing the poor, that sort of thing, and you never realize these things you think you see are a reflection of your own failure."

I've been reading James Lee Burke's books since the late 1980s, and he is among my most favorite authors. I particularly love the poetry of his language, whether he's depicting the after-effects of violence (an all too common factor in his books), drawing out a fight, or especially, describing a setting. His words truly paint pictures in your mind. I met Burke at a reading a number of years ago, and I can't help but think that there's a piece of him in every character he writes.

That being said, I didn't enjoy Light of the World as much as I have many of Burke's previous books. For one, I felt as if every character had an enormous chip on their shoulder, and it grated on me after a while. And I just don't understand how so much evil can follow Dave and Clete wherever they go—it's not just one particular villain they run afoul of, but many. It got hard to keep track of which person was visiting which wrong on which character. I also felt like much of this book was a retread on familiar territory—Dave and Alafair fight over his protective nature and her refusal to listen to him, and Clete follows his libido into trouble despite better judgment. I think Gretchen is one of the most complex characters Burke has created and I'd love to see more of her in a future book, even separate from Dave, Clete, and the rest of the gang.

The other question I had is how old Dave and Clete are supposed to be at this point. One of the hallmarks of Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels is the way both Dave and Clete are haunted by their time fighting in Vietnam. But if the Vietnam War happened 40-50 years ago, I guess that these characters are now near 60 at their youngest and 70 at their oldest? If that's the case, I have trouble believing they're still capable of the lives they appear to be living. But I guess that's the beauty of fiction.

James Lee Burke usually writes one book a year, and I look forward to it with great anticipation. Despite not enjoying this book as much as some of his others, I am still tremendously enamored of the way he writes, and can't wait until his next book comes out, hopefully next summer. If you've never read him before, definitely pick up a Dave Robicheaux novel and hopefully you'll be captivated as much as I have been all these years.

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