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Nobody can write crime fiction like James Lee Burke


Summertime brings us such an abundance of pleasures: the fresh sweet corn, those ripe tomatoes, the cookouts, the camping trips. Cool bodies of water beckon swimmers. Shady forest trails entice hikers. If you love a great read there’s the next summer novel from James Lee Burke.

Burke’s latest Dave Robicheaux novel, “Light of the World,” is his 20th in this compelling series.They have been set mostly in Louisiana, where Dave and his best buddy, Clete Purcell, have a lengthy shared history.

Dave’s a lawman, Clete’s “a junkyard falling down the stairs.” They apprehend killers and deliver their own forms of rough justice.

The author no longer resides in Louisiana. He makes his home now in Montana. Some recent stories have been set there. Dave has been taking vacations with Clete so that they can go trout fishing along those pristine mountain streams.

As this exquisitely long book opens we find that Dave, Clete and Dave’s wife Molly, a former nun, are on their latest Montana vacation.

They are accompanied by Clete’s formerly long lost daughter Gretchen, a reformed assassin for a crime syndicate. Dave’s daughter Alafair came along, too.

Alafair is exercising on a mountain trail when an arrow whizzes by, almost hitting her. This is our first indication that a crazed killer could be nearby. Dave is understandably upset. He contacts the local sheriff and isn’t impressed by the response he gets. Next, Clete’s daughter, Gretchen, has a chilling encounter with a local cop. Both women are seemingly in peril. Their dads now spring into action.

Alafair is the name of one of Burke’s actual daughters. The fictional Alafair and the real one are both former prosecutors who became crime novelists. When the Burkes were living in Wichita, Kan., Alafair was a little girl when a serial killer know as “BTK” was on the prowl.

In “Light of the World” our fictional crime writer Alafair interviews a convicted serial killer in Kansas. Later, he reportedly died in an explosion. But there are doubts. Perhaps this fiend is on the loose again? Heaven forbid, Burke’s villains get more insidious with every book. We know instinctively that the Kansas killer will surface in Montana. Burke has his serial killer masquerading as a preacher.

This latest novel has some valedictory aspects. At one point Dave reflects on “what is the sum total of a man’s life? I knew the answer, and it wasn’t complicated. At the bottom of the ninth, you count up the people you love, both friends and family, and you add the names to the fine places you’ve been and the good things you’ve done, and you have it.”

Last year I asked Burke what matters the most to him. His reply sounded like something Dave Robicheaux might say: “In terms of what constitutes a person’s life; for me, it’s family and friends. That’s it. When you get down the track, you get to the seventh inning stretch, the conclusion you come to — that’s all that counts.”


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