James Lee Burke
Rating: ★ ★ – – –
This book was well-paced and suspenseful. The core plot was good. It wasn’t cheap or sloppy or half-heartedly put together. Otherwise, however, it was pretty much a disappointment.
The descriptions of Louisiana and Montana landscapes, cuisine, and people seemed self-conscious and smug. So did the main character’s running and weightlifting. Conversations were full of phrases that I think were supposed to be clever but just came out as strange. The treatment of race was weird. And the hero had a streak of violence in him that seriously undercut his indignation about the behavior of others.
The story is about a former cop, Dave Robicheaux, who lives on the Louisiana coast making a modest living running a bait shop and fishing-boat rental business. His inner circle consists of two people who help him out around the shop and his house, and an adopted daughter, Alafair, from El Salvador. He is haunted by dreams of both Vietnam and his dead wife, who was killed by gangsters getting revenge on him for some past escapade.
Aside from the dreams, all is basically well with Robicheaux’s life until he bumps into an old friend: a drug-addicted, down-on-his-luck former rock-and-roll star now working as a leaseman for an oil company. His friend asks him to investigate a conversation that he overheard between two co-workers talking about how they killed a couple guys up in Montana. Before he knows it, Robicheaux is sucked up into a web of danger and intrigue involving mobsters, hired hit men, hot-blooded Salish Indian women, and, of course, winsome elementary school principals who have such incredible generosity they don’t mind that he keeps dumping his kid on them when he needs to go beat up a guy or confront a mobster or otherwise put himself in a life-threatening situation.
In the course of his investigation, Robicheaux has to travel from Louisiana to Montana, giving the author plenty of opportunity to show his intimate knowledge of both (Burke lives in Louisiana and spends a lot of vacation time in Montana). Sometimes an author will bring you into a country with them, sharing it with you, making you feel like you understand it too (as in The Healer’s War, Dance Hall of the Dead, or The Lingala Code). But Burke’s descriptions came off as braggadocio – or as inside jokes I wasn’t privy to. Also, although his writing about scenery is quite detailed, I found it strangely hard to picture.
I had a bit of a hard time with how Burke portrays black people in the book. Robicheaux is white. About the black man and woman who work for him (whose poor grammar he is constantly making fun of), he says: “I was always amazed by the illusion of white supremacy in southern society, since more often than not our homes were dominated and run by people of color.” I think this is supposed to come across as a compliment, or perhaps wryly funny, but, since he shows no real understanding of what his employees are like as people, it comes across as a tad patronizing. When push comes to shove, who’s really in charge of that bait shop? This is also the only time in the book he calls them anything but “Negro.” I might be a prude, but I’m not sure that “Negro” is the absolutely best term for 1989.
Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, but I found his recovery very glossy. It felt more like a gimmick than an integral part of his character. He goes through a dry drunk complete with fever and tremors one day and then the next day goes to get an ice cream cone with his daughter like nothing ever happened. He is also very smug about abstinence with his rock-and-roller friend, who still struggles with self-control every day. It is a pale shadow of Lawrence Block’s excellent Matt Scudder novels, another detective series with an alcoholic lead, which, fortunately, I’ll get a chance to rave about another time.
And, finally, Robicheaux is self-righteous and judgmental about the violence of the mobsters he’s investigating, but he himself has horrifyingly violent episodes. At one point, for example, he ambushes two goons who threatened the life of his daughter and spends probably fifteen minutes beating them within an inch of their lives with a five-foot length of chain. This doesn’t fit. If you’re going to be an anti-hero, you can’t go around on the one hand talking like you’re a saint and then on the other hand be eagerly and gratuitously bloody in your revenge. You need to take care of your problems with reluctant but necessary dispatch.