James Lee Burke sets an aggressive tone at the start of Light of the World, the best-selling author’s 20th novel featuring beloved protagonists Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel, and his 30th novel overall. It’s the sort of bold opening that belies the age of this franchise and reinforces Burke’s status as one of crime fiction’s master storytellers.
“I was never very good at solving mysteries,” explains Robicheaux in a fantastically humble opening line. “I don’t mean the kind cops solve or the ones you read about in novels or watch on television or on a movie screen. I’m not talking about the mystery of Creation, either, or the unseen presences that reside perhaps just the other side of the physical world. I’m talking about evil, without capitalization but evil all the same, the kind whose origins sociologists and psychiatrists have trouble explaining.”
It doesn’t stop there. Robicheaux, who acts as the narrator, flips back through his days in Vietnam, his service with the New Orleans Police Department and his battles with alcoholism, all the while coming back to the question of what makes someone evil.
“Were some people made different in the womb, born without a conscience, intent on destroying everything that was good in the world?” he wonders. “Or could a black wind blow the weather vane in the wrong direction for any of us and reshape our lives and turn us into people we no longer recognized? I knew there was an answer out there somewhere, if I could only drink myself into the right frame of mind and find it.”
The setup finds Burke at his best, serving up the kind of epic morality play that allows his lyrical writing style to flourish among a sea of impossibly demented bad guys and their intricate web of wrong-doing. Somewhere stuck in the middle of it all are Robicheaux and his loved ones, including his heavy-drinking, gut-busting, rabble-rousing partner, Purcel. The main twist in Light of the World is that Burke, who lives part of the year near Missoula, puts this cast of usual characters in an unusual place for them: western Montana.
Robicheaux, his wife and his adopted daughter, Alafair, who is an aspiring novelist, have all left New Orleans for a vacation near Lolo, and are staying at the ranch of a retired University of Montana English professor. Purcel and his newly discovered daughter, a former high-level hitwoman from Miami who is now pursuing a career as a documentary filmmaker, have tagged along. Within the first couple pages—after Burke’s fully charged prelude—Alafair is clipped on the ear by a hunting arrow. That curious incident allows us to quickly meet an off-putting former rodeo cowboy, a crew of crooked and/or incompetent cops, a wealthy oilman, the oilman’s troubled family and a presumed dead serial killer from Kansas who Alafair once interviewed. The presence or mere mention of all of these people means Robichaeux is not exactly destined for a true holiday.
While the plot and writing are vintage Burke, local readers will take special interest in how western Montana plays into the storyline. Burke folds in some recent events, like the rash of sexual assaults at the University of Montana and exploratory drilling near Glacier National Park. There’s a long description of Charlie B’s and another of The Depot that makes note of Jim Crumley’s usual seat. The local sheriff tells Robicheaux that Montana used to be known as “the last best place” but that now it’s just like everywhere else, and in another scene Purcel notes that people think Missoula “is turning into Santa Fe.” In a more romantic moment, Burke describes the landscape as a place “where dinosaurs and mastodons had once fed and played among the buttercups and ice lilies.” Robicheaux and Purcel haven’t visited Montana since 2008’s Swan Peak, and it’s a treat to read Burke again setting the stage in our neck of the woods.
Light of the World will not disappoint longtime fans of Burke and these characters. There are issues—I’ve grown especially weary of the improbable detective work; Robicheaux and Purcel wouldn’t get away with a fraction of their antics in the real world—but they’re overcome by Burke’s considerable strengths. Although the book is a robust 560 pages, the action moves fast and the numerous side stories all neatly come together. Burke’s evocative writing remains as strong as ever. He also continues to aim the crosshairs at corporate corruption and destructive one-percenters, and that makes for crowd-pleasing reading.
I realized in Light of the World that Burke has a tendency to rely on baseball terminology—a criminal will be “hiding his pitches,” Robicheaux will remark that “it’s still the first inning,” etc. The sandlot chatter raised a comparison: At this point in his career, Robicheaux is like a literary Nolan Ryan, the no-nonsense, hard-throwing, Hall-of-Fame pitcher. Ryan played 27 seasons and tossed his seventh no-hitter at age 44. One of the secrets to Ryan’s prolonged success was his flawless mechanics tossing a ball, a skill learned by repetition and devotion to his trade. The same could be said of the 76-year-old Burke and his ability to craft a story—something he’s been doing more or less the same way for more than 50 years. Lucky for us, the old man still has his fastball.
James Lee Burke reads from Light of the World at Fact & Fiction tonight, Tue., July 23, at 7 PM. Free.