The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in James Lee Burke (4)

Monday
Jan072019

The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster on January 8, 2019

“There are moments when you realize that our greatest vanity lies in the belief that we have control of our lives and that reason holds sway in human affairs.” Dave Robicheaux is prone to moments of darkness, an understandable reaction to the miseries he has faced. In The New Iberia Blues, his moments tend to be darker than we have seen in most Robicheaux novels, potentially imperiling his relationship with his daughter and everyone else he cares about. He is feeling his mortality and catching glimpses of whatever lies beyond. Yet he still retains the ability to notice “the leaves blowing along the sidewalks, the flowers blooming in the gardens, the massive live oaks spangled with light and shadow, all of these gifts set in juxtaposition to the violence and cruelty that had fallen upon us like a scourge.”

Dave finds a dead woman’s body nailed to a cross floating in the ocean, visible from the home of a Hollywood director Dave has known since they were both growing up in Louisiana. He wonders whether the director, Desmond Cormier, has anything to do with the woman’s death. Other suspects include a producer with a shady past who is staying with Cormier and another producer who is hanging out with Dave’s daughter.

More murders ensue. They might or might not have been committed by the same killer but they all seem to relate to tarot cards. Dave and the reader are tasked with deciding whether and how the killings are connected.

Dave’s newest partner, Bailey Ribbons, is smart and attractive, which in Dave’s world makes her a target for all the people who have an axe to grind with Dave. Chester Wimple, who smiled as he killed a bunch of people in the last Robicheaux novel, returns in this one. He’s one of James Lee Burke’s creepiest creations.

The New Iberia Blues includes a dead-on description of the Southern white trash who “glory in violence and cruelty and brag on their ignorance, and would have no problem manning the ovens at Auschwitz.” Race is not directly related to the crimes Dave Robicheaux investigates in The New Iberia Blues, but as one of the characters notes, everything in Louisiana is about race. Burke doesn’t back away from that ugly reality.

The novel also showcases the resentment that some people feel about “Hollywood types” who don’t share their narrow values, as well as the lack of sensitivity that Hollywood types have toward people who have less money and education and opportunity than society’s more privileged members. Robicheaux has examined what America has become and knows that it is pointless to “argue with those who are proud of their membership in the Herd,” but he also takes the time to understand why the herd mentality has become so prevalent.

Burke writes beautifully about the environmental and cultural devastation inflicted on Louisiana by industry and seedy politicians to the detriment of Cajuns and blacks and all of the state residents who live in poverty. He writes with dismay about the horror of war and “those people who love wars as long as they don’t have to participate in one.” He writes even more beautifully about the personal turmoil that afflicts Robicheaux and Purcell and even a psychopath like Wimple. When Robicheaux’s daughter tells him that he feels guilty about everything he loves, she nails a common problem — the inability to love without guilt.

Tension mounts as lurking threats give way to imminent danger in the novel’s last act. Burke provides several good suspects and a variety of motives for the multiple homicides. Trying to affix guilt or to maintain trust is as difficult for the reader as it is for Robicheaux and Purcell. The ending is just fantastic. And while the novel is very dark, Burke always reminds the reader that no matter how small a glimmer of hope might be, it can never be extinguished.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec272017

Robicheaux by James Lee Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster on January 2, 2018

Dave Robicheaux falls off the wagon, has a blackout, and finds himself accused of murdering T.J. Dartez, the man who was responsible for his wife’s death. That’s a fairly standard thriller plot but James Lee Burke is not a standard thriller writer.

Dave’s involvement is investigated by an unlikeable colleague named Spade Labiche — unlikeable because he’s racist, sexist, and corrupt. While Dave is being investigated, he’s assigned to an investigation of his own. An acquaintance, Jimmy Nightingale, is accused of raping the wife of another acquaintance, Levon Broussard, after Dave introduced them. Nightingale is a politician who owns part of a reverse mortgage company that preys on the elderly and on Dave’s buddy Clete Purcel. He’s the kind of patrician elitist who tries to convince good old boys that he’s one of them, conning his way to election victories.

Broussard and Nightingale and Tony “Nine Ball” Nemo, who controls the southern branch of a criminal organization, are all involved in the production of a Civil War movie based on one of Broussard’s books. Broussard is a decent guy who has a blind spot about the Civil War. After Broussard shows Dave a Confederate flag carried by a 14-year-old boy at Shiloh, Dave thinks of his friend: “Yet here we stood in reverence of an iconic flag that retained the pink stain of a farm boy’s blood, and whether anybody would admit it or not, the cause it represented was the protection and furtherance of human bondage.” Dave’s daughter Alafair helps write the script, although she doesn’t have much use for Nightingale or Nemo or, for that matter, Labiche.

James Lee Burke’s discussion of the rape investigation presents a balanced view of the difficulty that fair-minded officers have when the truthfulness of a sexual assault allegation is less than clear. He also gives a harsh but unbiased account of corruption and unchecked drinking as a way of life in parts of Louisiana, while extolling the virtues of Cajun culture.

As always, Burke is a keen observer of life. He writes about what Americans do “when we lose faith in ourselves and reach out for the worst members of our species.” He unmasks hate-mongers who disguise their vile rhetoric as a protest against political correctness. All of that adds interest to the story without becoming a distraction.

Dave suspects that Nemo and a cruel character named Kevin Penney were somehow involved in the murders of eight prostitutes (the Jeff Davis Eight) that were the backdrop to The Glass Rainbow. A creepy but oddly principled killer named Chester (a/k/a Smiley) also wanders through the story, complicating Dave’s life with a string of murders.

Burke’s characters are always strong. Dave’s friend Clete plays a significant role as he tries to balance his innate goodness against his desire to destroy evil. Dave has similar problems, although his real battle is with his desire to drown his problems in alcohol, which is what caused the mess that starts the story.

The plot is intricate but credible. Burke doesn’t tidy up every loose end, but life is untidy. Robicheaux isn’t my favorite Burke novel, or even my favorite Robicheaux novel, but Burke is one of my three favorite crime writers and his books never disappoint.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug222016

The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster on August 30, 2016

The Jealous Kind is a crime story, but it’s also the story of a teenage boy who is learning to understand himself, who is creating an identity he can carry into adulthood. The novel is also about friendship -- the difficulty of separating true friends from false friends, of deciding whether a friendship is real and when it should end. And it’s about the difficulty of being a decent person in an indecent world.

Aaron Broussard is a high school student in Texas from a working class background. His interest in a girl sparks conflict with a bully. Before long, Aaron and his friend Saber Bledsoe are suspected of torching a car near the area where a Mexican girl’s body is found. On top of that, one of his teachers, a man who is suspected of sexually abusing children, is deeply antagonistic to Broussard and Bledsoe. And on top of that, various characters have mob connections, making them doubly dangerous. And to top it all off, Aaron interacts with police officers who belong “to the huge army of people who believed that authority over others was an achievement and that violence was proof of a man’s bravery" -- although one police detective is a better example of humanity than the others.

As the plot unfolds, various acts of mayhem and murder occur. Aaron and/or Saber are suspected of involvement in most of them. The challenge for the reader is to figure out who did what. With an assortment of mobsters, gang members, and potentially violent people to choose from -- people whose motivations might be protective or destructive -- the challenge is enough to hold the reader’s steadfast interest.

Aaron’s father might be the novel’s most interesting character. He has an old-fashioned kind of southern honor. He’s well educated and knows that those of lesser “breeding” might mistake his sense of civility and manners for weakness. He believes in turning the other cheek, a value he labors to instill in Aaron.

Aaron’s father served in World War I, an experience he doesn’t like to discuss. World War II is looming, but the theme of war in The Jealous Kind is broader than international conflict. Class warfare and a hint of race wars are background themes through which the story must be viewed.

James Lee Burke builds tension chapter by chapter. It seems inevitable that Aaron will confront a life-changing moment. Whether he will survive, not just physically but emotionally, becomes the novel’s gripping question. The story is about courage, with which Aaron is plentifully supplied, but it is also about having the wisdom and maturity to make good choices -- to understand that violence is a last resort, even in a violent world. These are lessons taught by his father that Aaron will need to learn if he hopes to survive without ruining his life.

The Jealous Kind is one of Burke’s most powerful novels. In addition to Aaron, key characters engage in small acts of heroism, defying evil, standing up for principles despite overwhelming opposition. The point of The Jealous Kind, I think, is that it’s possible to find the courage and the will to confront evil without becoming evil. And sometimes courage is collective, as when friends have each other’s backs. There are always lessons to be learned from Burke’s novels and from that standpoint (as well as memorable characters, remarkable prose, and a compelling story), The Jealous Kind is one of his best.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul242013

Light of the World by James Lee Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster on July 23, 2013

As the opening paragraphs of the twentieth Dave Robicheaux novel expressly state, Light of the World is an exploration of evil, a familiar theme in James Lee Burke's books. It is Robicheaux's tale of how "one of the most wicked creatures on earth made his way into" the lives of Robicheaux's family and friends. Initially, the reader wonders whether the "wicked creature" is a born-again rodeo clown named Wyatt Dixon, the serial killer Asa Surrette (who, according to the FBI, is dead), or some other character who might be channeling Keyser Söze, making the novel a sort of whodunit. In the end, Burke's point is that evil wears many faces. Some evil people enter and leave prison, some enter the worlds of business or politics, some carry a badge. And as the best thriller writers remind us, the boundary between good and evil is often indistinct.

Robicheaux meets Dixon after an arrow sails past the ear of his adopted daughter Alafair while she's jogging in Montana during a family vacation at Albert Hollister's ranch. Alafair soon realizes that someone is stalking her, and she thinks she recognizes Surrette, a psychopath she once interviewed in a maximum security prison for a book she was writing. The stalking coincides with the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl, the adopted granddaughter of a billionaire whose son is a scoundrel.

Burke adds another dimension to the story with the reappearance of Gretchen Horowitz (last seen in Creole Belle), the daughter of Dave's friend Clete Purcel. Sexually abused as a child, Gretchen became a contract killer before renouncing her criminal vocation. Child abuse is clearly evil; whether Gretchen is evil, given her past, Burke leaves for the reader to decide. She might be less evil than a member of the local police department who brutalizes a handcuffed suspect before focusing his unwelcome attention on her. Robicheaux is a cop, but he acknowledges the evil inherent in the "sick culture" that pervades law enforcement, the "smug moral superiority" that makes police officers feel entitled to violate the laws they are sworn to enforce. Of course, any book about evil is also about good, and rare is the person who is entirely one or the other. The fact that good and evil coexist assures that they will influence (or taint) each other by virtue of their proximity. Robicheaux has learned the lesson that we all "belong to the family of man, even if only on its outer edges."

Burke writes with such eloquence that his tendency to be verbose is easy to forgive. When he waxes poetic about human nature, I take it in stride, confident that he'll eventually pick up the plot thread. His soaring prose is a joy to read. Real people generally aren't as articulate as the characters in a Burke novel (I know I'm not), but if they were, the world would be a more interesting place.

There's as much family drama as thriller drama in Light of the World, but none of it is melodrama. Family isn't always easy but it's always family, a point Burke makes through several of his characters. Burke has a knack for creating characters I'd sometimes like to strangle, while at the same time making me understand why they behave as they do.

Thrillers that take evil as their theme often allude to the devil, and this one is no exception. When Burke asks whether evil has human origins or whether it comes from a darker place, he's walking on familiar ground. When his characters started smelling peculiar odors that they associate with malevolence and seeing prints made by two-legged goat-footed creatures and at least half believing that the killer is an emissary of the devil, I became worried about the novel's direction, but Burke offers an appealing contrast of explanations for those phenomena, grounded both in the rational world and in the supernatural. In any event, Light of the World is such a deft display of suspenseful storytelling that my qualms vanished well before the novel reached its climax.

RECOMMENDED