My fourth summer reading selection, James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux series, is by far the darkest. As an author, Burke has all of the attributes of both Colin Dexter and Michael Connelly, but his explorations of character, informed by questions of good and evil and the pursuit of redemption, often make for some very dark excursions into the human condition.
Like Dexter and Connelly’s protagonists, Dave ages throughout the series; while originally a member of the New Orleans Police Department, for most of the novels he has been a detective in New Iberia Parish. His longtime friend and former partner, Cleetus Purcell, appears in most of the series, and while the latter is capable of some truly shocking and violent behaviour, his excesses are, in most ways, no greater than those of Robicheaux, something that Dave never seems to realize. Their kindred natures make it clear why their friendship has endured for so long.
There have been many losses and much pain in Dave’s life over the years. I have frequently thought his behaviour to be masochistic; he often brings trouble to himself and his family when it can so easily be avoided. However, I now realize he is partly motivated by an unquenchable thirst for justice, the achievement of which, I suspect, offers the hope of redemption for this deeply flawed character. Never are we more aware of the duality of human nature than when we experience Robicheaux’s character and world.
As with my other selections, I strongly advise that you read the novels sequentially in order to truly understand the character. I will give away only a few specific details by revealing that some of Dave’s spiritual and psychological problems stem from the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was young; in fact, she is the subject of one of the later books; as well, frequent references to experiences in Vietnam suggest that tragic misadventure as another source of his malaise. And then there is his ongoing battle with alcoholism, surely not unrelated to the aforementioned factors.
If you are looking for a mildly diverting reading experience, James Lee Burke will not provide it. In many ways, his themes and his writing approach literary status. Despite being a popular writer, he is not afraid to deal with some harsh truths that many of us may wish never to confront.
If you are interested in pursuing this author, please visit the following website for a bibliography of his work: http://www.jamesleeburke.com/bibliography.html
You won’t be disappointed with the work of James Lee Burke, but you may be profoundly disturbed by it.