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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Light of the World by James Lee Burke (hardcover, $27.99)

"Light of the World" is less a mystery than a treatise on the nature of good and evil, especially evil. James Lee Burke's main characters, Dave, Clete, Alafair, and Gretchen, are one voice mulling, raging, and exclaiming about, and inveighing against the evil in their lives that either haunts them or stares at them slit-eyed in person, while smelling of sulphur and excrement.

Dave Robicheaux has been James Lee Burke's window into a world of hard times and hard crimes since 1987. Dave has been the voice crying for justice in the bayou wilderness. Although Dave carries a police detective's badge, his sense of justice is his own and not borrowed from any rule book. His best friend and former police partner, Clete Purcell, was tossed out of the New Orleans PD a long time ago. As a private investigator, he has tiptoed with elephant feet between working for legitimate bosses and mobsters.

Alafair, Dave's adopted daughter, whom we first met as an endangered child in "Heaven's Prisoners," is now an adult. She writes about crime, most recently about a serial killer named Asa Surrette. Gretchen Horowitz is Clete's recently discovered daughter. She used to be a contract killer. Now she's a film maker working on a documentary of the shale oil industry. (What? It could happen.)

Burke has rounded up all of these characters, along with Molly, Dave's wife, and taken off for Montana for some R&R. But this is not a book in which we read about Dave and Clete fishing (although they do some of that) or enjoying a leisurely chinwag or serenely gazing off at the natural beauty surrounding them (although they do some of that, too). If it's a book about evil and its earthly manifestations, then there's gonna be less R&R and more action, bloodletting, and general nastiness.

Right off the bat, someone shoots an arrow at Alafair while she's jogging. Then Gretchen discovers the sober truth about how some law officers have their own version of the law. Then a young girl is murdered. Then a slob of a guy, whom no one will mourn, is murdered. That happens fairly early on. Then leisurely paced throughout the 560 page book there are more bodies and a lot more brutality. "Light of the World" is sort of epic in that way. Maybe it should have been named "Walk Towards the Light."

Wyatt Dixon, resurrected from "In the Moon of Red Ponies," appears as a born-again, speaking-in-tongues ex-con. Does he testify for the Lord in Aramaic? "Some people say it's Syriac. Some says Aramaic and Syriac is the same thing," he says matter of factly. Is he really reformed, or is the rodeo clown from hell still a couple of gallons short of a full tank and sowing terror along with the good word?

Asa Surrette was a seriously sadistic serial killer. His body count was probably way more than his confession would indicate. Awhile back, with the idea of a book in mind, Alafair asked to interview him. Although a book never materialized, Alafair wrote several articles on Asa, none of them flattering. Although she thought that she would never actually be in danger from him, incarcerated as he was in Nebraska and especially after he died when the police van in which he was traveling burned with all hands on board, Alafair (and Dave) fairly rapidly comes to the conclusion that Asa is the one who shot the arrow at her and it is he who is now stalking her.

"Light" is also a centerpiece for the suffering of women. Although Clete and Dave thrust their chests out at perceived threats, and bluster at the authorities and rich-people-who-think-they-can-do-anything, they often take second chair to Alafair and Gretchen, who can bluster for themselves quite well, thank you. A couple of other female characters are central to the plot as well and their stories add, somewhat tediously, to the length of the book.

This is Burke talking about the awful deeds that human beings can do. They don't even have to rationalize them either. This is about the mysteries of life and death, love and hate, and God. Unfortunately for the good (but flawed, massively flawed) guys, there are complicated and conflicting clues. In Burke's world, people must gamely put one foot in front of the other, cling to what happiness and comfort they can find, try to be better people for the love of others, and prepare for the next assault.

Dave sums up what he's learned about life: "At the bottom of the ninth, you count up the people you love, both friends and family, and you add their names to the fine places you've been and the good things you've done, and you have it."

Burke's writing is ardent in his descriptions, metaphorical in its reach, intense in its crimes. I could have done without a scene or two, a character or two -- I definitely would have left Felicity Younger (wife and daughter-in-law of filthy rich, and just plain filthy, oilmen) and Bertha Phelps (appearing initially as a particularly inept reporter) at the pop stand.

Burke has been edging up in the page count over the last few books. It seems his fictional world these days contains too much to fit anymore in less than 400 pages. He has too much to say about how pitiful our standard response is to the evil out there, how we must deal with our morality and mortality, how there's more to this world than is contained in this world.

Actually, never mind "Walk Towards the Light." Based on the Odyssean nature of the quests of all the characters -- while floating on a "wine-dark sea" and hearing their individual sirens' calls -- the book should have been called "The Odyssey Redux."

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