Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke

“Was it you or Purcel who said most of the world’s ills could be corrected with a three-day open season on people?”

“It was Ernest Hemingway.”

“I’ve got to read more of him.”

pegasusOn a recent vacation, I ran out of reading material (!!) and took the opportunity to visit the local Half Price Books. I was happy to indulge in an old favorite, James Lee Burke, and also to read something I picked out all by myself.

Pegasus Descending is not one of the more recent Dave Robicheaux novels, although it’s not one of the first, either, which surprised me. It reads like quintessential, vintage James Lee Burke, and vintage JLB means excellent JLB: I enjoyed it very much.

To place this one in the series for Burke fans: Robicheaux is married to Molly the former nun in this installment, and working as a detective for the New Iberia (Louisiana) PD, where his boss is the androgynous, likeable Helen Soileau. Clete Purcel comes into play, too, and unsurprisingly falls for a dangerous woman (what else is new). The novel starts with a flashback to Robicheaux’s hard drinking days, when he watched a good friend’s murder and was too drunk to stop it. Flash forward again, and that man’s daughter enters Robicheaux’s jurisdiction and tries to pass marked bills to a casino. He feels obliged to help her if he can, out of respect for his dead friend. At the same time, a young woman shows up dead – by murder? suicide? – to whose family Robicheaux also feels some responsibility. Against the advice of his superiors and wife (again, what else is new), he insists upon pressing the buttons of a few dangerous, powerful, criminal men around town, and the bodies continue to mount.

Burke’s favorite themes are all present: difficulties with alcohol and authority; the sensations of the air off the bayou and the local cooking and culture; the imperfections that lie deep within our psyches; race relations; and the question of pure evil. Also family dynamics and love and battered, bruised redemption. I love this guy.

Rating: 7 three-legged raccoons.

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Beautifully composed and tragic, James Lee Burke’s 35th novel is a sweeping historical epic of war and the American dream.


James Lee Burke is famous for a long-running mystery series starring detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel; two series centered on Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland; and stand-alone novels and story collections that all evoke the beauty, heartache and social injustice of Louisiana and Texas (among other locales). His 35th book, Wayfaring Stranger, tells a historical and sometimes fantastical story of the birth of Big Oil, the legacy of World War II and the far-reaching influences of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the opening pages, young Weldon Holland fumes at his grandfather, Hackberry, who was a poor parent to Weldon’s mother and is now poised to have her locked away and electroshocked. It’s the early 1930s, and Weldon’s father is gone, looking for work. Four trespassers in a 1932 Chevrolet Confederate challenge Weldon and Grandfather on their ranch, and the confrontation ends with Weldon firing a shot through the back windshield at Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and two of their associates. This interaction casts a long shadow over the rest of Weldon’s life.

His story resumes in 1944 when he ships out for England as a second lieutenant. Weldon sees action in Normandy, particularly Saint-Lô, and the Ardennes; he digs Sergeant Hershel Pine out of a collapsed foxhole in the snow after an attack, and together they rescue a beautiful Spanish Jew named Rosita from an abandoned death camp. The three walk across enemy territory, lose toes to frostbite, fight tuberculosis, and are eventually separated. After the war, Weldon finds and marries Rosita, and Hershel turns up on Grandfather’s Texas ranch.

Together they establish the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, using Nazi tank technology, Hershel’s welding skills and nose for oil, and Weldon’s family connections to build a minor empire. But the old money in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood is offended–by their success and their humble upbringings, and particularly by Rosita’s heritage. And thus enter two of Burke’s favorite subjects: the evil lurking in the everyday, and the hero’s struggle to repress the evil within himself. Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, creates more conflict: her actions endanger both business and family success, especially when she gets “discovered” and shipped out to Hollywood.

Burke’s fans will recognize his lyrical strengths regarding the themes of social justice and class struggle, violence set to a stunning backdrop of natural beauty and destruction, and a Gulf Coast region that includes historically accurate details to delight Texas and Louisiana natives. He creates strong and convincing characters on the sides of both right and wrong, and through them writes a compelling American history. Weldon investigates his father’s disappearance, Linda Gail’s unfaithfulness, and the evil forces that have targeted the well-being of his and Hershel’s families; but this is not a mystery. In fact, perhaps more than any of Burke’s previous work, Wayfaring Stranger is a tender love story, proving yet again his versatility and skill in creating gorgeous, luscious, painful stories of the American experience.

This review originally ran in the June 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 pipe joints.

Light of the World by James Lee Burke

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are joined by their daughters as they battle evil in the hills and valleys of Montana.

Light of the World, James Lee Burke’s 20th novel starring Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, returns to the Montana hill setting of 2008’s Swan Peak. Fans will be thrilled to find Robicheaux and Clete Purcel joined by their respective adult daughters in a hard-hitting, intense battle between good and evil. Burke’s writing is poetic–reverential in praise of natural beauty, contemplative of human nature–and invokes a strong sense of place. Clete, the rough-and-ready, hard-drinking, softhearted private investigator, is lovable as ever; Robicheaux is the flawed hero who has charmed us from the first, fighting his demons and protecting his clan.

Years ago, Dave’s daughter, Alafair, visited serial killer Asa Surette in prison to interview him for a book she never wrote. Instead, she published a condemning series of articles advocating the death penalty. Later, Surette was killed in a collision with a gasoline tanker. So why is he now lurking around the cabins in Big Sky Country where Robicheaux, Clete and their families are trying to relax? The evil in this powerful story of suspense has supernatural undertones, as wolves skulk in the woods above the ranch and planes fall out of the sky. Alafair teams up with Clete’s daughter, the reforming New Orleans hitwoman Gretchen Horowitz, and they make as remarkable a pair as their fathers. As the story unfolds, a rodeo cowboy who speaks in tongues, a serial killer who should be dead, ex-cons, rapists, bear traps and evil that dwells in caves in the hills all come together in perhaps the greatest showdown of Burke’s career.

This review originally ran in the July 30, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 howls.

Teaser Tuesdays: Light of the World by James Lee Burke

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. And try not to include spoilers!


The new Robicheaux novel from James Lee Burke comes out in late July. I am loving it. He’s one of my favorites, although some of his books are better than others (what do we want, that’s true of most of our work, whatever it may be!), and the good news is: this one is wonderful. I had trouble choosing which lovely passage to share with you, but this one won out:

Most GIs hated Vietnam and its corruption and humid weather and the stink of buffalo feces in its rice paddies. Not Clete. The banyan and palm trees, the clouds of steam rising off a rainforest, the French colonial architecture, the neon-lit backstreet bars of Saigon, a sudden downpour clicking on clusters of philodendron and banana fronds in a courtyard, the sloe-eyed girls who beckoned from a balcony, an angelus bell ringing at 6 a.m., all of these things could have been postcards mailed to him from the city of his birth.

Isn’t that something. My mother points out that this will mean more to you if you’re familiar with serial character Clete Purcel, whose hometown is New Orleans. (Obviously.)

And in honor of Dave and Clete, I mixed myself a drink to accompany Light of the World: a riff on a mix that they both enjoy (Dave’s is virgin, I suspect Clete’s is not). Mine included Dr. Pepper, cherry moonshine, orange juice, and was garnished with a Twizzler. Sorry I didn’t take a picture for you!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Rain Gods by James Lee Burke (audio)

raingodsJames Lee Burke is best known for his series of mysteries starring Detective Dave Robicheaux, who makes his home in New Iberia, Louisiana and whose adventures mostly take place there (or in New Orleans, or – in one case that I know of – in Montana). But he does write other books: I read a western a while back. Rain Gods is the first Burke I’ve read that stars Hackberry Holland, sheriff of a small Texas border town that I am pretty sure remains unnamed.

As the book opens, Hack has just discovered a shallow grave filled with illegal immigrants behind a church, and a young man named Pete Flores, a veteran of the war in Iraq, flees town with his girlfriend Vikki. They fear the team of professional criminals that were involved with the shooting, but the threads of the case are quickly so thoroughly intertwined that Pete himself doesn’t know who they’re running from. Between a New Orleans crime boss, a bumbling Texas strip club owner, a psychopathic hit man who thinks he’s the left hand of God, and a couple of young lackeys whose loyalties are yet to be tried, Hack and his deputy Pam Tibbs have their hands full in trying to solve the murder and protect Pete and Vikki. And they may still be working out the relationship they share, to boot.

As in any good mystery story, some subplots come out sooner than others. The man they call “Preacher,” who somehow thinks God is supportive of the mayhem he creates, is an enigma of pure evil; but he’s not the only one whose motives are unclear (or irrational). The romance that Pete and Vikki share is a welcome sweet note; and Hackberry’s storied past and accumulated guilt are a familiar but still satisfying facet. The fact that both Pete and Hack are still processing their experiences in war (Iraq and Korea, respectively) is a sobering note of reality that draws the two generations together effectively.

I don’t feel that Rain Gods is Burke’s finest work; I found it a little bit slow-paced. But it had all the hallmarks that I come to Burke for. Our hero is damaged and has committed great wrongs, but is essentially good. The setting is strongly evoked – and I liked it particularly, as the plot mostly takes place in West Texas borderlands, a location I’m fond of and fairly familiar with. And Preacher’s character is quite frightening – as he was intended to be.

The audio narration by Tom Stechschulte is excellent. I love the different voices he does – especially because there’s such a collection of characters featured here, with different accents and tones of voice that express emotions and pain and insanity. This audio format deserved a fine portrayal, and it got one.

I will be reading more James Lee Burke. But I may prioritize the Robicheaux novels.

Rating: 6 delusions.

Teaser Tuesdays: Rain Gods by James Lee Burke

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!


James Lee Burke is always wonderful. Of all the attractive quotations to tease you with, I couldn’t resist this literary allusion…

Cassandra had been given knowledge of the future and simultaneously condemned to a lifetime of being disbelieved and rejected. The wearisome preoccupation of the elderly – namely, the conviction that they had already seen the show but could never pass on the lessons they had learned from it – was not unlike Cassandra’s burden, except the anger and bitterness of old people was not the stuff of Homeric epics.

…especially when fused with wistful musings on age and its trials.

What are you reading this week?

In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke

As noted recently in my book beginning, Burke is an old favorite. Between this book’s title and its colorful cover, I felt especially drawn to it. The electric mist and the Confederate dead are some of the odder, more alluring moments in this story, too, but they are not its center.

Detective Dave Robicheaux is the star of Burke’s bestselling series. In this installment, he’s at home in New Iberia, a small community on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. There’s a movie production in town, which brings with it various complications of the local scene: a group of gangsters come in from New Orleans; the Hollywood actors drive drunk and make trouble; several girls turn up dead in what looks like the work of a serial killer; and a body surfaces that relates to an event in Robicheaux’s own distant past. He continues to attend AA meetings and his alcoholism continues to be one of the sources of conflict in the story. There are some weird, almost paranormal forces at work – or are they just the manifestations of his alcoholism? – and that keeps things interesting and colorful.

This book shares certain themes with all Burke’s work, including racial injustice that persists in the South; a love of nature (and some outstanding, lovely writing conveying the natural beauties of south Louisiana); struggles with alcoholism; and corruption in positions of authority, manifested in the conflicts Robicheaux has with his workplace superiors. One of Burke’s greatest strengths, in my opinion, is the strong sense of place that he conveys with his lovely, lyrical writing. He waxes poetic about the beauty of nature; and both the natural setting and the cultural references evoke south Louisiana unmistakably. His stories, it seems, could be set nowhere else. (This is not true. Swan Peak is set in Montana and is equally successful. But my point about a strong sense of place stands.) While his plots are interesting and his mysteries do indeed keep the reader on her toes, Burke’s beautiful writing and obvious care for natural and cultural settings are the best and most unique parts of his work. I feel that his closest readalike author is Michael Connelly. Connelly’s writing is not nearly as lyrical, but his strong sense of Los Angeles, and Detective Bosch’s love for jazz and LA, and the dark, brooding mood both authors create, make them a matched pair in my view.

In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead is vintage (1993), classic James Lee Burke, and thus strongly recommended.

Rating: 7 crawfish poboys.
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