James Lee Burke is an excellent storyteller. He creates a tale full of atmosphere and mystery, and if plot details occasionally seem questionable, well, they remain engaging.
Book five in the Dave Robicheaux series hits all Burke’s high points:
An immersive, sense-filled setting:
“I… walked into the French Quarter. The narrow streets were still cool with morning shadow, and I could smell coffee and fresh-backed bread in the cafes, strawberries and plums from the crates set out on the sidewalks in front of small grocery stores, the dank, cool odor of old brick in the courtyards. It had rained just before dawn, and water leaked out of the green window shutters on the pastel sides of the buildings and dripped from the rows of potted plants on the balconies or hanging from the ironwork.”
Character description that goes beyond the physical:
“Her accent was soft, pleasant to listen to, more Mississippi than Louisiana, but in it you heard a tremolo, as though a nerve ending were pulled loose and fluttering inside her.”
“There was something too cavalier about her attitude, and I had the feeling that she had anticipated my visit and had already made a private decision about the outcome of our conversation.”
Observations of human character:
“He told me he had been a navy corpsman before he had gone to work for the parish as a paramedic. His face was young and clean-shaved, and he reminded me of most medics, firemen, or U.S. Forest Service smoke jumpers whom I had known. They were enamored of the adrenaline rush, living on the edge, but they tended to be quiet and self-effacing men, and unlike many cops they didn’t have self-destructive obsessions.”
A narrator who struggles with human truths:
“At that moment I realized the error of my thinking about Bootsie. The problem wasn’t in her disease, it was in mine. I wanted a lock on the future, I wanted our new marriage to be above the governance of mortality and chance; and, most important, in my nightly sleeplessness over her health, and the black fatigue that I would drag behind me into the day like a rattling junkyard, I hadn’t bothered to be grateful for the things I had.”
At the story level, A Stained White Radiance lives up to the high standards set in earlier books. Dave, a detective with the small Iberia Parish’s sheriff’s office, gets an call about a shooting at Weldon Sonnier’s house. Weldon tries to dismiss it as a kid hunting, but Dave’s not so sure. When a fatal break in at Weldon’s house commits Dave to investigation, Weldon’s siblings Drew and Lyle become reluctantly involved.
As Robicheaux delves into the affairs of the Sonnier siblings, Burke takes the opportunity to wind through Cajun country, this time focusing a little more on race aspects of Louisiana politics (the “Stained White” title is delicious). War history again plays a role in character relationships. I found plot-character mix a bit confusing at a few points, but truly, that must be how it seems to investigate a case–multiple leads that may or may not result in a solution. There’s false trails here, more so than in the average mystery. But as I finished, I realized Dave’s false starts make sense, although plotting falls slightly outside normal mystery conventions.
For those who haven’t tried the Robicheaux series, I’d recommend starting at the first, Neon Rain (review). Burke started out extremely strong, so there’s no worry about waiting for the series to gain footing. The main mystery in each book stands alone, but Dave’s wrestling with his personal demons is an ongoing character issue and there’s something to be gained from understanding that struggle. I strongly recommend the series to people who enjoy mysteries, complicated characters and developed settings.