BACK off, all you James Lee Burke fans. Aside from a brief, sad coda, there are no on-the-ground views of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripping through Louisiana bayou country in PEGASUS DESCENDING (Simon & Schuster, $26). This Southern regionalist must be saving his biblical wrath and sorrow on that subject for another day. Here, in Burke’s 15th crime novel featuring his roughneck hero Dave Robicheaux, he is still on high ground, writing about crimes whose roots run so deep in old blood feuds and historical race and class hatred, they take on mythic scale.
“I live in a place where Confederate soldiers in ragged uniforms hover on the edge of one’s vision, beckoning from the mist, calling us back into the past,” says Robicheaux, a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department, who welcomes these ghosts because they keep him sober and focused.
More than 20 years after the fact, he is still haunted by the death of Dallas Klein, a Vietnam War hero who was mowed down with a shotgun over a gambling debt he owed to a bookie named Whitey Bruxal. Robicheaux was on the scene, but in those days he was a roaring drunk and could neither save his friend nor solve his murder. He finally gets a chance to make restitution when a seductive stranger who shows up in the parish flashing $100 bills from a savings and loan robbery in Mobile turns out to be Klein’s daughter. The detective is convinced she is planning vengeance on her father’s killer and resolves to get to Whitey first, using crimes committed by his son to nail this now virtually untouchable gangster.
Burke has always been in love with the parent-child dynamic, which he applies here in multiple plot combinations until every suspicious death in the area — from the vehicular homicide of a homeless man to the suicide of a cane farmer’s daughter — seems to come down to the same few blood-soaked families. That’s the Southern way, we know; but Burke takes the theme of generational guilt to Homeric levels of tragedy, writing with a kind of drunken rapture about those sins that cycle through the regional heritage, poisoning generations yet unborn.
Robicheaux sees himself as a kind of archetypal hero (the overburdened Atlas comes to mind), and that serves to validate the acts of frenzied violence he’s prone to commit when he gets his hands on a bad guy. But the same heroic impulse also accounts for his gruff tenderness to a black gangbanger who’s being railroaded into taking the fall for the children of the big-time dealers, casino operators and other members of the criminal elite who have bought their way into the ruling social classes. Come the apocalypse, Dave Robicheaux will show them where to go.
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