If you were trying to film a James Lee Burke novel, the violence portrayed would be so vivid, so filled with gore and pain that it would turn the stomach of most people in the audience. Perhaps that’s why his books, which have a narrative drive that should turn easily into film, haven’t been made or aren’t successful. Although hope springs eternal and “In the Electric Mist” is in post-production now with what appears to be an excellent cast. Tommy Lee Jones plays detective Dave Robicheaux. Perhaps because of his potential for violence, Cletus Purcell is missing from the cast. But in print, Burke’s violence takes on a transcendent beauty. He makes the violence so beautiful through his language that I momentarily lose my sense of exactly how gruesome many of his images are. The scenes go past in slow motion as Dave Robicheaux gives in once again to the unchained beast within him who emerges when he faces evil so deep he must react immediately rather than allow his finer self to control him. Or perhaps the violent self is the better self after all.
I’ve written about James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux mysteries here before. I’ve read most of the novels and find them fresh and involving even when, on very close scrutiny, they fit neatly into the Burke formula class and race consciousness, the nature of living and thriving in the south generally and in Louisiana in particular, alcoholism, and, in the end, guilt and redemption. All this is presented in a language so rich and full bodied that it’s like eating a full meal. Burke uses color, its taste, feel, smell, and texture to create moods that ring with authenticity. Anyone who’s spent time in the area around New Iberia has seen the cultural contrasts seen from house to house along the bayou. Race and its pervasive effect on southern life is constantly before a Burke reader as Dave negotiates and criss-crosses the lines separating people. Another frequent Burke theme is found in the hypocrisy of evangelists who must align themselves with the sin they preach against in order support their ministries. He thus suggests an inevitable corruption in the televangelist’s efforts.
Pegasus Descending, first published in 2006 and now available in trade and mass market paperback formats, as well as audio tape, treats all the topics above in a convoluted plot filled with the grotesque and morally ambivalent characters Burke portrays so well. Robicheaux himself has such a clear moral vision that he sets impossible standards for himself and others, forgives those he loves for falling short and tortures himself almost to oblivion for his own shortcomings. This time around a beautiful young girl apparently kills herself after being raped and then gang-banged by a bunch of fraternity boys. Her death leads Robicheaux into the murky world of wealthy upstarts, sociopathic killers, maimed and damaged friends and foes who are the stuff of a Burke novel. His new wife Molly, a former nun, proves an able supporter, perhaps the only person who understands Dave sufficiently to allow him to forgive himself and find short moments of piece. While he is nearing sixty, Dave still has enough libido to make any of us more than a little jealous. Sheriff Helen Soileau, Robicheaux’s boss and, often, protector, grows significantly in this book. She is one of Burke’s best drawn female characters, perhaps because of her sexuality.
All in all, Pegasus Descending maintains the high standard of this wonderful series, perhaps raising the bar a little bit. If you haven’t entered into the dark world James Lee Burke creates in Louisiana, you might want to give it a try.