Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Fantasies: The Neon Rain

A few summers ago, my mother-in-law, Dee, recommended that Dan and I – both avid readers – check out James Lee Burke, an award-winning crime novelist based in New Iberia, Louisiana. According to her, we were sure to love Dave Robicheaux, the complicated protagonist of Burke’s Louisiana-based series, and she couldn’t stop raving about the author’s rich descriptions of New Orleans and the surrounding marshland.

Being a native of New Orleans and a lover of other crime novels – such as Kathy Reichs’ “Bones” series – I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him before. But then, the best purchasing decisions often result from word-of-mouth reviews.

So, trusting Dee, Dan and I bought our first Burke novel – Purple Cane Road (2000), the eleventh in a series of seventeen so far – and neither of us were disappointed. Like any good series writer, Burke had crafted a novel that, though incorporating character and story elements from previous novels in the series, firmly stood on its own.

As it turned out, Dee was right: Dan and I both adored Robicheaux, a flawed detective who, despite plenty of missteps in his past, ultimately endeavors to save (or, at least, honor) the people who deserve it. And Burke's spot-on descriptions of bayous, shrimp po’ boys, and the Garden District made me utterly homesick for New Orleans.

Immediate Burke converts, Dan and I set about trying to find other Robicheaux stories. As part of his present two Christmases ago, I bought three books from earlier in the series – A Stained White Radiance (1992), Burning Angel (1995), and Cadillac Jukebox (1996). Several months back, we even listened to the audiobook versions of Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002) and Pegasus Descending (2006), both of which are narrated by Will Patton – who would incidentally make the best Dave Robicheaux if Hollywood ever attempts another cinematic version of one of Burke’s novels.

Since we’ve now read (or heard) several of the books out of chronological order, we recently decided to experience the series from start to finish, beginning with Burke’s first Robicheaux novel, The Neon Rain (1987). I just finished reading it – while lying on a hammock in northern Michigan – and I’m happy to report that I absolutely loved it. Told in first person, the narrative is rife with descriptions of the French Quarter, accounts of bloody scrapes with the "bad guys," and inner monologues about Robicheaux's own brand of Cajun justice and philosophy.

When the novel opens, Dave Robicheaux, a homicide detective in the New Orleans Police Department, has just arrived at Angola Prison, to speak with a convicted murderer mere hours before his execution. During the visit, the convict informs Robicheaux that, due to a recent homicide case involving the drug-induced drowning of a young black prostitute, someone has marked the persistent detective for death. Unwilling to let the case go - despite the fact that it lies outside his jurisdiction - Robicheaux soon finds himself mixed up with an unsavory cast of characters - from drug dealers, arms smugglers, and mob henchmen, to government spooks and dirty cops, including his wayward partner, Clete Purcel.

A divorced, ex-drunk, still chasing demons from his dark days as a soldier in the Vietnam War, Robicheaux might not be the likeliest of heroes, but that’s what’s so darn lovable about him. He’s far from perfect, often letting his temper override his reason and always struggling to quell the alcoholic beast within, but ultimately, he’s a noble-hearted rogue, with a soft spot for naive do-gooders and the determination to see a case through to its inevitable conclusion, no matter what the consequences – for himself or his loved ones (including his brother, Jimmie the Gent, and his latest girlfriend, Annie, a tough, kind-hearted Midwestern beauty with a past of her own).

If you’re interested in crime novels rich with character, action, atmosphere, philosophy, and, yes, violence, I highly recommend delving into the Robicheaux series, which includes the following novels:

The Neon Rain (1987)
Heaven’s Prisoners (1988)
Black Cherry Blues (1989)
A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
A Stained White Radiance (1992)
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
Dixie City Jam (1994)
Burning Angel (1995)
Cadillac Jukebox (1996)
Sunset Limited (1998)
Purple Cane Road (2000)
Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002)
Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
Crusader’s Cross (2005)
Pegasus Descending (2006)
The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)
Swan Peak (2008)

Although you might find yourself cringing at the more brutal encounters and yelling at Robicheaux from time to time, you're sure to be sucked into Burke's world of good cops, bad cops, mysterious swamps, rowdy bars, fried seafood, memorable music, crooked politicians, and everything else that defines southern Louisiana, even its seedy, embarrassing underbelly.


Stephanie Faris said...

So many novels are set in New Orleans. It's one city I've never been to but I figure it must be the most fascinating city in the country to inspire so much fiction!

Laura Martone said...

Yes, New Orleans is truly an inspiring city - authors as varied as Tennessee Williams and John Grisham have based their stories there. And, though I've traveled to a lot of U.S. towns, New Orleans is, by far, my favorite (I even wrote about it for my blog). Although it can be dangerous in places, it's an amazing city to visit - you should see it for yourself someday. Maybe I could be your tour guide! :-)