Friday, July 04, 2003

The Neon Rain, Heaven’s Prisoners and Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is the crawlin’ kingsnake of Southern crime fiction. His novels are taut, violent flashes of suffering and redemption. Great stuff if you can take the pain. These are the first three novels in the long-running Dave Robicheaux series. Burke is a heavy-hitter, a novelist who beautifully mixes emotion, character, plot, and terrific prose all within a hard-boiled framework. Basically, he does what a great writer is supposed to do –- blow the reader away with his skills. He has put the zap back into the crime fiction genre. So far I’ve only read the first three in the series, but I can’t wait to work through the rest of them. Which says a lot, I think, since the series is now up to book twelve. That’s a lot of suffering and agony for a reader to endure. But these books are worth it due to Burke’s strong yet lush prose and memorable characters. Unfortunately, Burke’s female characters (mainly Annie from the first two books) leave a lot to be desired. Burke has a tendency to cast them as either mother figures or victims, although perhaps that’s just dirty ol’ Robicheaux’s perceptions. It’s hard to tell. Nevertheless, these first three novels make for excellent reading, especially if your sensibilities lean toward the dark.

Beware that the below mini-reviews contain major spoilers!

The Neon Rain introduces us to the character of Detective Dave Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic Vietnam-vet who isn’t afraid to stir up the shit on his New Orleans beat. Hailing from the Cajun backwoods of New Iberia, Robicheaux is one bad ass dude with plenty of skeletons in his closet. After the discovery of a black prostitute’s body in his old parish, Robicheaux becomes obsessed with finding out who murdered her. Unfortunately, no one cares enough to help him on his crusade, including his own partner Cletus, who is a certifiable loose canon. But Robicheaux won’t let the case die, and soon the entire city becomes a killing ground for a cop who is going off the deep end. Although arguably the weakest of the three, The Neon Rain makes for an exciting first book in the series. It’s strong stuff, especially when Robicheaux falls off the wagon and almost ends up destroying everyone and everything around him. But the book’s strong sense of story and character make it impossible to put down.

Even better is Heaven’s Prisoners. Robicheaux is now married, retired from the police force, and living back in New Iberia. But when Robicheaux and his wife witness a plane crash in the bayou and save a young El Salvadorian girl from the wreckage, Robicheaux is drawn back into a sinister plot of murder, gun running and politics. And then there’s the crime kingpin Bubba Rocque. Bubba and Robicheaux have known each since childhood and have always had a confrontational relationship to say the least. But when Robicheaux suspects that his old friend is behind the brutal slaying of his wife Annie, their relationship enters a whole new level of conflict. Heaven’s Prisoners contains some brilliant and horrifying moments, and it also has some of the best villains that I’ve encountered in a long time. Fantastic stuff.

But for all of the previous novel’s excellence, Black Cherry Blues reaches a whole new level of greatness. After a chance meeting with his old college roommate, a down-and-out rhythm and blues guitarist named Dixie Lee Pugh, Robicheaux is accosted by an ambitious DEA agent who wants to nail the infamous Sal the Duck, a.k.a. Sally Dio, a major mob player operating out of Montana. The feds want Dio’s ass and the only way they can nab him seems to be through Robicheaux’s connection with Dixie Lee. Of course, this being a James Lee Burke novel, things do not come together that easily. Dave’s daughter’s life is threatened, Robicheaux is accused of murder, and Sally Dio and his gang of criminal scumbags wish they’d never even heard of big bad Dave when he arrives in Montana to stir up some serious shit. Throw in the return of Robicheaux’s ex-partner Cletus into the mix, and what you end up with is one wild read that is bold, violent and ultimately unforgettable. I was a little worried, at first, about taking Robicheaux out of the bayou. But the change of atmosphere works beautifully and my fears were quickly quashed. At this point in the series Burke really needed to open things up a bit and try something new for fear of repeating himself. He succeeded in spades.

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