Open the book at random, and you’ll find Burke’s sparkling prose on every page. His gift for description and for mixing formality and street talk place him among America’s outstanding writers. Here, for example, in the middle of the book, he describes a meeting between Felicity Lourviere, who has unhappily married into a wealthy family, and Clete Purcel, the hard-drinking, hard-fisted buddy of Dave Robicheaux, the renegade lawman and protagonist of this series.
“She was wearing a peasant dress and a beret and tennis shoes and a thin jade necklace. She looked outrageous and mysterious, like an orphan girl who had wandered out of a nineteenth-century novel into the world of the rich and famous. Or was that simply an identity she had manufactured in order to turn a burnt-out bail-skip chaser into a sock puppet? If she was looking for a guy to use, why him? If you wanted a thoroughbred, you didn’t go to an elephant farm.”
Although Light of the World is set in Montana—Robicheaux, Clete, and their families have come to the Big Sky country for a rest from their last brush with death—Burke’s descriptions of Louisiana, Robicheaux’s customary stomping grounds, particularly reveal this great talent for description. When you read his accounts of New Orleans or Cajun country, you hear the jazz, taste the gumbo smell the bayou.
And this is why Light of the World, and some of the other 20 books in this series, especially the more recent ones, so frustrates some readers. Here is a man who can make words sing, who can make poetry of the prosaic, who can seduce readers into turning pages like a strung-out player flipping his scratch sheet at the track, but who then gives us ridiculous plots, stereotypical characters, and hackneyed political ideas.
Let’s look at the plot of Light of the World. Asa Surrette, a mass murderer and possibly a demon—he carries a stench with him of feces and blood, speaks of an ancient evil lineage, and has a mysterious ability to outguess his opponents—has returned form the dead. He’s stalking Alafair, Robicheux’s daughter, for articles she once wrote calling for his execution. He’s also after the writer and professor who owns the house where Alafair is staying because he once shot down one of Surrette’s short stories in class. Other equally unlikely coincidences stretch the imagination. Wyatt Dixon, for example, a rodeo rider whose brain was zapped during electro-shock treatments while in prison, moves randomly to the area, then discovers that he is the son of one of the locals who coincidentally is possessed of enormous power and wealth.
In addition to the reliance on coincidence, Burke adds to the unreality of his tale by the number of dead bodies littering the novel. I lost count by the novel’s end, but would estimate that 15 or 20 people were bumped off, mostly by Robicheaux and his friends. Despite this slaughter, there’s no real investigation to speak of by the time the slaughter ends. (This need by suspense writers to hype a body count has become commonplace. Lee Child of the Jack Reacher series actually makes Robicheaux look like a piker, killing a platoon or more of people in each book).
Burke makes it easy for us to tell the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys have all the talent and compassion. Alafair is a great writer; Gretchen, Clete’s daughter who once carried out hits on people for the Mafia and who never served any jail time for it, is a budding filmmaker; Molly, Robicheaux’s wife, is an ex-nun and a compassionate woman fighting for every liberal cause that comes her way; Clete, the most interesting character, is an aging man who drinks truckloads of booze, eats fried foods, smokes, and still manages to run around like a man half his age. As for Robicheaux, he is a saint disguised as a cop.
The bad guys are the usual Burkean crew: corporate heads; religious psychopaths; backwoods Christians; working class conservatives duped by the money boys.
In all his books, Burke rails in particular against the rich people and the corporations of the world. This constant raillery should amuse observant readers. Here’s a man who has produced more than 30 books, many of them bestsellers, and who has sold the film rights to several of them, who has the effrontery to blast away at the rich. Like some of our current politicians, he doesn’t seem to have the eyes to see that, by the standards of most people in America and in the world, he is one of the rich.
I have read all 20 of the Robicheaux novels. The first ones in particular meant a great deal to me, not only by entertaining me, but also by influencing me in several areas of my life, most importantly my faith. But with Light of the World my affection—or addiction—to these tales has come to an end.
A sad end, I might add.
Light of the World by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2013. 560 pages.