30 November 2013

Light of the World, James Lee Burke

I make no secret that Burke is one of my favourite writers. However, he is not one of my favourite novelists. His descriptive prose creates a setting so authentic you can almost smell it but varied characters and credible scenarios are simply not his forte. He draws from his collection of standard villains to the extent that most are interchangeable from book to book.
The latest outing sees Sherriff's Deputy Dave Robicheaux, his buddy, Bail Agent Clete Purcell, their two adult daughters and Dave's wife Molly staying with a friend at his remote Montana ranch. Needless to say, a serial killer and various violent cronies soon appear on the scene. As usual Dave's family comes under personal threat, and he and Clete override local law enforcement pursuing the villains themselves. The chase culminates in a bloody shootout to rescue hostages.
Burke has particular difficulty with female characters. His women are invariably hard, angry and with chips on their shoulders. Perhaps this gives a clue about the women in his real life; look no further than Alafair, the irritable daughter of his main protagonist Dave Robicheaux. Even her very unusual name happens to be the same as Burke's own daughter. Dave's wife Molly is absent from ranch settings for much of their stay. Burke just seems to forget she's there!
Put simply, Burke cannot do dialogue. No one answers a question. Instead they pose another. Conversation is always minimal; at best testy, at worst venomous. Ultimatums are issued to friend and foe alike: "Don't ever... "Don't you dare... "You say that again...." Characters repeat themselves from page to page and from book to book: Alafair continually rejects her father's various terms of endearment for her. Clete's daughter, the abrasive Gretchen, argues with everyone within earshot.
I know this is meant as escapist entertainment, and that some repetition is necessary to help newcomers, but each instalment is a barely disguised variation on the last. Burke is seventy-seven and his protagonists are getting close to that too. I wonder how much longer they can scrap like youngsters and whether Burke should retire them and divert his undeniable writing skills in a more cerebral direction.

No comments: