The themes in James Lee Burke’s lyrical, allegorical crime novels rarely change, but each new book delves more deeply into them, revealing an author who is increasingly troubled about human nature and the American character but unwilling to abandon hope for redemption.
“Light of the World” begins with Burke’s most popular protagonists, Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux of New Iberia, La., and his menacing sidekick, Clete Purcel, vacationing in Montana with their grown daughters, Alafair and Gretchen. But when someone tries to kill Alafair with an arrow, it’s clear that trouble followed them there.
Most of the novel’s characters, Dave included, have long struggled with childhood trauma. Burke’s fans have watched Alafair grow from a frightened adopted child to a successful author. He fled from the terror of a Central American revolution. Gretchen was sexually abused as a child and grew up strong enough to kill one of her abusers. The novel’s villains, including wealthy oil magnate Love Younger and his arrogant son, Caspian, are struggling with their own dark secrets. So is Wyatt Dixon, the violent rodeo clown who wanders into the story from “In the Moon of Red Ponies” (2004), part of Burke’s Montana-based series featuring Billy Bob Holland.
Some of these damaged characters have channeled their pain into a fierce determination to help people while others have turned their anger into bloodlust, Burke tells us, exploring his old theme about the possibilities of redemption.
Once again, Burke creates villains who view avarice as a virtue, heedless of the damage they wreak on the environment and their fellow man. Again, he demonstrates how easily they corrupt the police and politicians. He returns to his themes of racism and the hijacking of Christianity by hateful bigots. And he continues his exploration of the nature of evil, asking us to consider whether its source is men who, as he once put it, make “a conscious choice to erase God’s thumbprint from their souls,” or whether it is truly the work of the devil.
In this novel, as in all of Burke’s work, the past is ever present, haunting both his characters and the soul of the nation. The dead are always with us, he says, apparently meaning it literally. In “Light of the World,” the specters of Nez Perce Indians slaughtered by the US cavalry haunt the Montana ridges, and a troubled and selfless woman is the embodiment of a Christian martyr slaughtered in a Roman arena.
Dave and Clete’s immediate nemesis is a homicidal maniac named Asa Surrette, who seeks revenge for a series of articles Alafair once wrote about him. But the killer is a pawn in the hands of powerful men whose greed knows no bounds.
As always, the law is corrupted and outgunned, and as the bodies pile up, Dave, Clete and their daughters recognize that if they want justice, they will have to get it for themselves.
The result is perhaps Burke’s boldest and most complex novel to date, at once a superb crime story and a literary masterpiece from an author who has been named a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.—Bruce DeSilva
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of “Cliff Walk” and “Rogue Island.”