Review: Burke brings 'Light of the World' to fulfilling end

Published July 16, 2013

It's never a good sign when your family vacation begins with someone shooting an arrow at your daughter while she's out for a jog.

But bad signs are nothing new for Dave Robicheaux.

Light of the World is the 20th novel about the Louisiana sheriff's deputy by James Lee Burke. You can call Burke a crime fiction writer, but I call him a national treasure — he's not just a master of propulsive plots, rich prose and achingly real characters, he's a writer who looks unflinchingly at violence in American culture, at every level from the personal to the corporate.

Burke has published seven contemporary Western novels about the Holland family, a Texas clan, and several other books, but Robicheaux is his best-known creation. The detective, a Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic, usually operates on his native ground, New Orleans and New Iberia, which is also where Burke grew up.

In several novels Dave also has traveled to Montana (where Burke lives for part of each year), and that's the setting for Light of the World. With his wife, Molly, and adult daughter Alafair, Dave is spending the summer on an idyllic ranch in the Bitterroot Mountains that belongs to his old friend, writer Albert Hollister. (Alafair, whom Dave adopted after rescuing her from a plane that went down in the Gulf of Mexico when she was 5, shares a first name and an occupation with one of the author's daughters. Alafair Burke is an accomplished crime fiction writer whose latest novel, If You Were Here, came out in June.)

Also along for the ride is Dave's longtime best friend, that knight errant and walking disaster area known as Clete Purcell. After the harrowing events of Creole Belle, Burke's last Robicheaux novel, Dave and company are just looking for some R&R in a peaceful spot. But while Alafair is jogging on a wooded ridge above the ranch, she is nicked on the ear by a flying arrow. That leads to a confrontation with a rodeo pro named Wyatt Dixon — a man so frightening that a Montana prison where he was sent for "capping a rapist" found him too much to handle and subjected him to electroshock treatments.

Alafair is lucky, though, compared to Angel Deer Heart. The 17-year-old Shoshone girl has vanished, last seen in a biker bar nearby. Angel was born on the reservation but adopted, after her family died, by the lovely Felicity Louviere and her weaselly husband, Caspian Younger, who just happens to be the only son of oilman Love Younger, one of the richest men in the country. "Whatever he touched turned to money, huge amounts of it, millions that became billions, the kind of wealth that could buy governments …"

Then Angel's body is found in a condition that rings a fearsome bell — it recalls the methods of Asa Surrette, a notorious serial killer whom Burke models on the BTK killer, Dennis Rader, who was convicted of 10 murders in Kansas. After Surrette was caught and convicted, Alafair interviewed him in prison for a book she planned but never wrote. He later died in a fiery crash involving a prison van, but now there seems to be a copycat in Montana.

Fans of Dave and Clete will not be surprised that the two are soon pursuing the truth about Angel and Wyatt, raising the hackles of local law enforcement and the Younger family — except Felicity, who wants Clete to find her daughter's killer. Clete's daughter, Gretchen, for good and ill a real chip off the old block, becomes embroiled in, and imperiled by, the investigation as well.

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Light of the World focuses less on Dave's demons and more on Clete's, and that's a lot of demons. As Gretchen says to him early in the book, "Nobody can get in this much trouble." But Clete's history — abused childhood, PTSD since Vietnam, a ruined police career, guilt over not knowing he had a daughter who endured her own brutal childhood, and his unending struggle to control his addictions and his raging violence — is a grand tour of the issues to which Burke always returns.

For both Clete and Dave, evil is real even if it appears in different guises; the exploitation and abuse of women and children, of the poor and the weak, and of the natural world are all faces of the same dark power. Opposing that power morally comes naturally to both men, but it always brings with it the terrible question of how to fight it: If violence is the expression of evil, does meeting it with your own violence plunge you into the same abyss?

"We try to protect the innocent and punish the wicked," Dave says, "and don't do a very good job of either. Ultimately, we adopt the methods of our adversaries and grease them off the earth and change nothing."

Despite such moments of despair, Dave Robicheaux is an enduring hero, and Burke takes Light of the World pedal-to-the-metal to a hair-raising standoff and a satisfying end.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.