JAMES LEE BURKE – A Stained White Radiance. Dave Robieheaux #5. Hyperion, hardcover, 1992; Avon, paperback, 1993.

   Burke is hot right now. There are always writers who catch the critics’ eyes and occasion the tossing around of phrases like “transcend the genre,” and other such inanities. Crumley, Le Carré, James, Leonard, etc., etc., depending on the year and critic, have been so honored, and now Burke. I’m one of those Wrong Thinkers who sees Jacques Barzun as pompous, condescending and generally full of it, and think that talk of transcending the genre is arrant nonsense, but I like James Lee Burke’s writing anyway.

   Here we find Robicheaux, an alcoholic, dry and working as a Sheriff’s Deputy in the Iberia Parish of Louisiana. As if he didn’t have enough problems, his wife suffers from lupus. As the book opens he is called to the house of Weldon Sonnier, a wealthy oil-man. Robicheaux had gone to elementary school with three of the Sonniers, dated one, served in Vietnam with another. They are a strange family, one the wife of a Klansman-cum-politician, yet another a television evangelist. Their family history, besides intersecting his own, is a bit on the Gothic side, and Robicheaux is reluctant to become involved with them.

   For good reason. Weldon is associated with and indebted to a local gang boss, and has had CIA links in the past. Bits of the family’s twisted history surface, the story turns dark and strange, and the plot takes odd — and sometimes dubious — twists. His old New Orleans partner on the police force, Clete, now a private detective, aids him in his struggles.

   From interviews, it’s plain that Burke takes his writing very seriously, and does not see himself as a genre writer. He is a friend and admirer of James Crumley, and indeed they share both virtues and failings in the craft. Both are, for lack of a better phrase, powerful prose stylists; and both are rather muddy plotters, though Burke is much the better of the two. To be fair, I think that both are simply much more concerned with what they have to say about the human condition than they are niceties of plot.

   Burke, to me, has all the prerequisites of the storyteller. a superb skill at putting words together, the ability to bring his characters to life and make you care about them, and a story to tell that holds the interest. He’s one of the few authors I buy in hardcovers, and while Radiance is not his best work, it is nevertheless an excellent one. Highly recommended.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #3, September 1992.