I've begun reading James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books from the start of the series.
In the past few years, I've finished Burke's most recent Robicheaux books as they've arrived. But I was late in discovering the Robicheaux books.
The first novel, "The Neon Rain," published in March 1987, finds Robicheaux a homicide detective in New Orleans battling Crescent City organized crime figures while running afoul of federal law enforcement agencies. While not an apprentice work, the book shows a young writer's uncertainty.
The vivid descriptions of nature that mark Burke's later work are restrained, and the plot implausible. Fully developed major and minor characters indicate the strengths of the later books.
Clete Purcell, Burke's soulmate in subsequent works, draws Robicheaux's contempt here. Robicheaux's disreputable brother is introduced, and I wondered if he would reappear later in the series.
"The Neon Rain" also tells the romantic story of Robicheaux's courtship of his second wife, Annie, who later comes to a tragic end. The scenes of Annie and Robicheaux evoke New Orleans' easy-going culture of restaurants, bars and sensual pursuits.
With fewer of the meandering philosophical digressions of the later books, "The Neon Rain" flashes with the vivid language that Burke would later wield with greater mastery. The book defines New Orleans' Latin indolence, wild natural abundance and virulent corruption.
In the second book of the series, "Heaven's Prisoners," published in 1988, Burke's writing is more assured. Robicheaux has left New Orleans for New Iberia in southwestern Louisiana. Out of law enforcement, Robicheaux runs a bait shop, where he doesn't spend much time as he keeps getting drawn into investigating mysteries.
The book heralds the arrival of a major character of the series, Alafair, Robicheaux's adoptive daughter. The book details how Robicheaux and his doomed wife Annie rescue the young girl from a plane that they see crash into the Gulf of Mexico while out fishing. Luckily, Robicheaux, as any bait salesman would, has his diving gear onboard his boat, and dives into the plane to save the child. Happens every day, at least in Robicheaux's world.
I plan to keep reading the Robicheaux books until I catch up with those I've finished. My unread list includes standouts like "The Tin Roof Blowdown," "Last Car to Elysian Fields," "Dixie City Jam" and "In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead."
Of those I've read, I thought Burke's second to last book, "Robicheaux," showed the author in decline. But the 82-year-old was back at full power in his latest book, "New Iberia Blues."
With all of his cartoon violence and outlandish characters, Burke's writing like Flannery O'Connor's is "God haunted," Jesuit priest Edward W. Schmidt says in an article in the current issue of America, the Jesuit magazine.
Echoing Catholic theology and longing for redemption through the community and natural beauty of the past. Burke's language seeks to restore a lost communion. His Robicheaux is a broken medieval knight, wandering through a blasted landscape, seeking a mystical kingdom.