James Lee Burke, Pegasus Descending (2006)

When in doubt, go for the tested and tried ones. I can’t remember which Dave Robicheaux I’d read a billion years ago, but I had the memory of something dark and tough, a bit like a strong alcohol. After a series of disappointment with paltry and shallow books, I reached for the true noir.

Well, my memory proved reliable. To say  that James Lee Burke’s characters are deeply flawed is a bit of an understatement. It reminds me of James Ellroy’s brutal but tragic heroes from the L.A. Quartett. You’ve got to have some stomach for the book, because there’s a heavy trail of blood throughout the plot, and things rarely go polly-annaish when we reach the conclusion.

In that episode, Robicheaux, now sober but as world-weary as ever (as suits the noir genre), meets the ghost of his guilt, in the person of the daughter of a friend and fellow Vietnam vet, that Robicheaux couldn’t save from a brutal killing 25 years before. Robicheaux quickly guesses that the woman is in town to get revenge against the ageing mobster behind the murder.

I don’t quite know how to express this, but I see a strong parallel between Ellroy and Burke in that sense that there is a strong sense of fate, honor and moral duty in both series, especially under dubious moral circumstances.  Robicheaux doesn’t feel as if he had a choice, he’s duty-bound to fight for justice, knowing that the justice system he works for is deeply flawed. So he’s very tempted to take justice in his own hands.

I don’t agree with this logic in real life, and in my safe little corner of the world, but in literature, it makes damn good thrillers!

It speaks of a world that I’m happy to keep very, very far away from my own, but thanks to the distance, it’s both fascinating and sobering to get a glimpse of the bayou world of Louisiana, of casinos, frat boys, drug dealers, vicious thugs and ambitious DAs, a society crumbling with corruption and moral decay, drugs, poverty and violence made possible by guns everywhere.

Burke gives an additional twist to the story by providing clues of the disaster to come: it alludes to the hurricane Katrina and the tragedy of New Orleans, and makes it clear that the authorities knew well before the disaster that the levees were not strong enough to protect the poorest and mostly black population.


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