James Lee Burke, poet of crime fiction

James Lee Burke is a poet of hardboiled crime fiction. His violent thrillers are filled with twisted characters, whip-smart dialogue and great descriptions of nature. He loves nature with the same intensity that his hero, reformed alcoholic and devoted family man Dave Robicheaux, and his buddy, boozy, womanizing Clete Purcel, are haunted by their nightmares of the Vietnam war. It all adds up to thrilllers in the Raymond Chandler mode, which are social commentary sugarcoated as entertainers.

In Burke’s latest book, Swan Peak, published last year, New Iberia police detective Robicheaux, his wife Molly and Purcel the PI are staying with a friend in Montana after surviving the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. Their ordeal was the theme of  the previous book, Tin Roof Blowdown, which is hard to beat for the sheer power of its description of the hurricane and the flood in New Orleans. They come to Montana for peace, but trouble follows them like a fly.

They encounter oilman Ridley Wellstone and his brother, Leslie, whose face has been horribly disfigured by a fire in an army tank, it is said, but whom they suspect to be Mob boss Sally Dio. But Sally is supposed to be dead, killed in a plane crash after Purcell put sand in the oil tank. And the case is still under investigation. Luckily, for Clete, FBI agent Alicia Rosecrans falls for him – and he for her. That is the only good thing that happens, though.

A serial killer is at work and the local sheriff wants Robicheaux to track him down.

Meanwhile, Leslie’s pretty wife, Jamie Sue, a former country singer, persuades Clete to help her trace her old lover, rodeo-riding, guitar-playing Jimmy Dale Greenwood. Who is on the run from the prison, where he had been wrongfully jailed. Pursued by a gay prison officer, Troyce Nix, whom he had nearly stabbed to death for sexually abusing him. Along the way, Troyce has picked up a woman, Candace, with whom he has fallen in love and who is trying to dissuade him from killing Jimmy.

To add to the complications, there is the bent preacher Sonny Click, and the Wellstones’ hired goons, Lyle Hobbs and Quince Whitley.

Shades of Dylan Thomas and Under Milk Wood

Burke brings them together in a seamless tale with some beautiful – and clever – writing. I was reminded of Dylan Thomas and his play, Under Milk Wood, by this passage. Here on a moonlit night Robicheaux is musing about all the other characters. (Two of them – Sonny Click and Quince Whitley – are already dead.)

We’re the blue marble in the solar system, wrapped by water and vapour but also by stars.The same ones I could see outside the window shone down on all of us – Clete Purcel and Alicia Rosecrans, wherever they were that night, Sonny Click on a slab, the Wellstone brothers and Jamie Sue and Lyle Hobbs in their compound north of Swan Peak, Quince Whitley awaiting the worms to violate his coffin, the improbable couple made up of a Texas gunbull and a young woman with a chain of flowers tattooed on her breasts, the pair of them hunting down a hapless creature like Jimmy Dale Greenwood, whose only desire in life was to play the guitar and follow the rodeo circuit with Jamie Sue and his little boy.

All the players were out there, the children of light and the children of darkness, the blessed and the malformed, those who were made different in the womb and those who cursed the day they were born and those to whom every daybreak was filled with expectation. The stars enveloped the entirety of the planet, blanketing a desert where people killed one another in the name of God, while oil fires burned on the horizon and other people sloshed gasoline into their SUVs and believed in their innocence that the earth and its resources were inexhaustible.

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