James Lee Burke’s Light of the World is the twentieth book in the Dave Robicheaux series, published in 2013 by Pocket Books. It is the story of the book’s eponymous character, a New Orleans cop who is taking a rare vacation along with his wife Molly, his best-selling author daughter Alafair, and best friend, disgraced cop turned private investigator Clete Purcel. The group is staying on the ranch of an old friend, an eccentric author. They are eventually joined by Clete’s illegitimate daughter, Gretchen Horowitz, a former mob assassin turned film student. It’s a motley crew to be sure. While trying to rest and recreate, the protagonists manage to run afoul of practically everyone, from the local police to escaped psychopath Asa Surrette, a serial killer that Alafair had once interviewed for a book. Surrette supposedly died in a fiery prison van crash, but it is soon apparent that he is quite alive and just as crazy as ever.
I can definitely say I’ve never read a book quite like this. I was drawn in to the narrative quickly, only noticing about halfway through that, while the story is substantially told by Robicheaux, it passes constantly into third person omniscient narrative. This hybrid style was new to me, though, after I got used to it I really liked it. It is the best of both worlds–the noir narrative of a detective novel and the broader, fuller explication that comes from hearing even the twisted thoughts of Surrette, maybe the best drawn bad guy I’ve ever read. As a struggling author in the same genre, I am always fascinated by how authors who are giants in the field, Burke being about as giant as they come, can break nearly every rule I’ve ever been taught when it comes to what you can and can’t do. For instance, everything I read about making my work publishable says to make the pace fly along by keeping the narration spare, description of setting economical, and dialogue practically monosyllabic. Get rid of all articles. Make your characters talk like cavemen. Apparently, Burke never read any of that malarkey. His description is so comprehensive as to make the Montana setting a character unto itself. Beyond that, his narrator is a darkly brooding but complexly philosophical man, who spends pages at a time contemplating the meaning of life, the existence of true good and evil, and his place in the world. Finally, the dialogue reads like a direct transcript of actual conversations with no trace of an edit anywhere. He breaks so many rules and I love practically every word. Practically.
My only objection comes from the same issue. And objection is probably even too strong a word. The thing that makes it fascinating also makes the pace drag at times. But only a bit. And even the sections that seem like superfluous bloviation end up being significant before the story is over. Inevitably, the parts I didn’t really enjoy turn out to be some of the thousand threads that Burke uses to weave a tapestry so complex that I found myself going back and rereading whole sections just to make sure I made all the connections.
The main characters, and even the minor ones, are nuanced and real. Gretchen, for instance, could have been a cliché, but she’s round and full. While we sympathize with a woman who was unmercifully abused as a child and even as an adult, we are just as repelled as she is by the horrifying violence that is so much a part of her character. Another favorite is Wyatt Dixon, who I never really did fully figure out. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? I finally decided that those were the wrong questions to even ask about him. He’s an ex-con who clearly has done some unspeakable things in his time, but has been subjected to so much electric shock therapy that his brain is wrecked. With all of his ugly history, he’s a man with a strong, albeit sometimes odd, sense of pride and integrity.
But for all the twists and turns, both plot and character wise, the book still concludes with what we all who enjoy this kind of story want—a great fight scene in which all seems lost at least twice, but the good guys win and the bad guy gets his. Despite all the angst of am-I-truly-good-when-I’ve-done-so-many-evil-things-in-the-name-of-the-law, we know at the close of the book who the good guys are and who the bad guys are—or were, as nearly all of them are dead. The language and graphic violence are not for the faint of heart, but are not nearly the worst I have read. It deals unflinchingly with some dark and extremely adult situations, but never falls into lurid sensationalism. I definitely recommend this book. If you like your crime ugly and your protagonist to tend toward the deep-thinking antihero type, you’ll definitely find this to be an enjoyable read.