James Lee Burke is acclaimed as a crime fiction writer, and one of the best at that. Over the more than five decades that he has been publishing books, he has taken a wider view of crime — his characters seek not just to solve a murder or stop a thief, but to understand the nature of evil, often at their own peril.
That quest animates his new book, “Harbor Lights,” a collection of seven short stories and a novella. His 40th novel, “Flags on the Bayou,” which was just named a finalist for the 2023 best novel Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, was set in Louisiana during the Civil War. This book roams across historical eras in the American South and West and brims with the rich, lyrical prose that is one of his trademarks.
Burke’s best-known characters, Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux and his comrade in arms Clete Purcel, don’t appear this time around. But fans will get a hearty helping of the pair in his next novel, “Clete,” which will be published in June.
“Harbor Lights” does feature some of the characters Burke’s readers know from other books, notably Aaron Broussard, a writer who narrates the title story at the book’s beginning, “Deportees” at its center and the novella, “Strange Cargo,” that comes at its end.
The other four stories feature different protagonists, all of them driven by a thirst for justice in a world where bigotry and violence make it difficult to find. “Going Across Jordan,” set in the Colorado mountains in the 1950s, is about a pair of itinerant workers. The narrator and his friend Buddy do whatever work comes to hand on ranches, loading hay bales and breaking horses, never putting down roots. But Buddy’s work as a union organizer and their run-in with a cowboy movie star playing at being a real cowboy both have terrible consequences.
The narrator of “Big Midnight Special” served at Iwo Jima, but a postwar heroin habit and attendant crimes have landed him in a brutal Louisiana prison where one of his fellow inmates is the legendary blues musician Lead Belly. Arlen loves music, too — his only goal is to learn to play “The Wild Side of Life” on his Gibson guitar. But he has experience as a boxer, and a prison gang leader tries to pressure him into a fight, leaving him to take desperate measures to find freedom.
“The Assault” is set in present-day Montana and focuses on Delbert, a history professor, whose life is upended when his teenage daughter, Jennifer, gets into a fight and suffers a head injury. The police are indifferent about pursuing her attackers, and as her symptoms worsen into seizures, Delbert’s anger grows. His budding romance with a fellow professor sets off another storm — she’s Black, Delbert is white, and the town teems with white supremacists. His desire to defend those he loves turns into a shocking act of vengeance.
The narrator of “The Wild Side of Life” is a Korean War veteran who bears scars of combat visible and invisible. Now he works on oil rigs, a dangerous and rootless job, which is why he does it: “By choice most of us lived on the rim. ... I liked the rim. You could pretend there was no before or after; there was just now, a deadness in the sky on a summer evening, maybe a solitary black cloud breaking apart like ink in clear water, while thousands of tree frogs sang.” But the before comes back, not his experiences in Korea, which were horrific enough, but a mass murder he witnessed during a drilling operation in the Amazon, conducted in the name of business. When the man who did it shows up on the oil rig, the rim becomes even more dangerous.
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Burke’s fiction has always had a mystical streak, with the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, murder victims and long-dead historical figures woven into the world his characters inhabit. “A Distant War” crosses right into hell as a young professor and his little son get lost in the mountain West and blunder into a crossroads where they encounter, among others, a woman who tells them she’s Varina Davis, wife of the president of the Confederacy, still atoning for her husband’s sins. Varina is the least frightening person they’ll meet.
As the story “Harbor Lights” begins, young Aaron Broussard is fishing with his father: “It was in late fall of ‘42, out on the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Louisiana coast, the water green and cold and sliding across sandbars in the sunset, when we saw the bodies bobbing in a wave. ...”
A tanker ship is burning nearby. Aaron’s father calls in a Mayday, but doesn’t identify himself and warns the boy not to tell anyone: “There’s a great evil at work in the world, son. ... We mustn’t bring it into our lives.”
The tanker was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine; Aaron’s father, a World War I vet and engineer, saw it slip under the water. He knows the local authorities, and authorities higher up than that, don’t want anyone to know how chillingly close the war has come. But he can’t stay silent. When a pair of government agents threaten to blackmail him if he talks, he goes to the local newspaper.
It’s the right thing to do, but all the wrong things happen.
“Deportees” is set in 1941, just days after Pearl Harbor, although it could have been ripped from the headlines yesterday with its story of Mexican laborers smuggled across the border, then dumped at a Texas ranch. Aaron and his mother, who is wracked by mental illness, are visiting the ranch, which belongs to her father, former sheriff Hackberry Holland, another recurring Burke character.
Aaron’s grandfather shelters the migrants but hides them when the menacing Mr. Watts shows up to warn him.
“’We think there’s infiltrators coming up from the border.’
“‘To be specific, Japs.’
“’The Japs are fixing to bomb Yoakum, Texas?’ Grandfather said.”
Despite the absurdity of the situation, panic begets violence. And violence, as it so often does, begets more violence. That’s the tragic absurdity that haunts Burke’s characters: that someone who wants only to set things right ends up doing something just as wrong.
“Strange Cargo” finds Aaron at the other end of his life, when he’s learned that lesson all too well. He’s a successful writer who’s left his longtime home in Montana after the death of his beloved daughter and bought the plantation house on Bayou Teche, in New Iberia, Louisiana, that once belonged to his ancestors.
He expects to find ghosts there, and the most vivid one is his daughter, Fannie Mae. As in life, she’s a wiseass brimming with advice for her father (and the only ghost I’ve ever heard of who has the ability to use a credit card).
Aaron cherishes her presence, but when, at her urging, he opens his home as an animal sanctuary, it draws the attention of the local law. Sheriff Jude Labiche has a racist reputation and a fascination with an ancient tree on the property where the pirate and enslaver Jean Lafitte was said to have conducted his trade in human beings. “Rusty chains were nailed with spikes to a live oak trunk,” Aaron tells us, “and over the years I saw them slowly subsumed inside the tree’s girth, the links looping stiffly in and out of the bark, until they had become part of the heartwood and were forgotten, as though the lives they symbolized never existed.”
But the chains are still there, and the ghosts won’t be silenced. The South’s past of slavery and racial violence lives in its present, and Aaron finds himself confronting it yet again.
Harbor Lights: Stories
By James Lee Burke
Grove Atlantic, 368 pages, $22.95