As a longtime fan of James Lee Burke, I have been consistently seduced by his novels and the maturation of his characters, particularly Dave Robicheaux of New Iberia and his best friend, DI Clete Purcel, “the Bobbsey twins from Homicide.” As a recovering alcoholic (though this aspect of Dave’s life is low-key), Robicheaux is helpless to assist Purcel in the ceaseless battle with his inner demons, the larger-than-life PI given to excess in all things—appetites, emotions, reactions. Robicheaux acts as an arbiter of peace after his own years of rabble-rousing in Bayou Teche and Iberia Parish.
Light of the World is set in Montana, where Robicheaux, his wife, Molly, and adopted daughter, Alafair, visit retired English professor and environment activist Albert Hollister on his ranch in Lolo for the summer, along with Clete Purcel and Purcel’s grown daughter, Gretchen Horowitz, soon to join them. Clete has only recently learned of his daughter’s existence, tormented by the abusive childhood she endured (not without scars), including a reputation for violence and a history with the mob. Even before Gretchen arrives, Dave puts a name to his discomfort after Alafair is nearly shot by an arrow, followed by an acrimonious conversation with a weathered and cantankerous ex-rodeo rider, Wyatt Dixon: “I’m talking about evil. Perhaps without capitalization, but evil all the same.” There’s something bad afoot, and Dave is convinced they are being watched, a cave behind the ranch filled with a noxious smell and etched with a Biblical warning.
Events quickly spiral out of control. The adopted Indian daughter of a wealthy local family disappears after leaving a bar late at night. After the near-miss with the arrow, Alafair senses she is being followed in town and even recognizes the man shadowing her: convicted serial killer Asa Surette, believed killed in a fiery wreck during transport by armed guard. Alafair interviewed Surette, even though Dave cautioned her about attracting the notice of such a man. Her published article got Asa’s attention, piqued his curiosity, and Alafair now a fixture in the murderer’s imagination. Unfortunately, Dave is slow to credit Alafair’s claim that Surette is alive, an action he will quickly regret.
While Dave and Clete establish an adversarial relationship with the local sheriff, Elvis Bisbee, who gives little credence to Alafair’s claim of being shot at with an arrow, the boys from New Iberia have received a request to look into the missing girl’s activities the night she disappeared, making frequent exchanges with local authorities inevitable. While Clete is thrilled to see Gretchen, Dave has serious reservations. The girl’s reputation as a hothead and contract killer are disturbing in the best of circumstances. While a dark cloud of impending violence gathers, both Dave and Clete will discover their daughters often engaged in risky behavior, unwilling to let others fight their battles.
Besides an inept sheriff and the secret activities of an influential oil family—Love Younger, his son Caspian and Caspian’s wife, Felicity Louviere—Detective Bill Pepper of Missoula, Montana, becomes a lightning rod for physical confrontations for the visitors from New Orleans, a rogue cop with suspicious ties to the Youngers and a penchant for brutality. But the main players in an unfolding drama of passion and revenge that includes Dave, Clete, Alafair and Gretchen are Wyatt Dixon and Asa Surette. While the tough-skinned, world-weary Wyatt Dixon proves to be a surprise and a sometimes ally, Surette spreads his menace with abandon, heedless of collateral damage including victims, as he acts out a nefarious plan that seems supported by the devil’s minions.
Engrossed with an impending confrontation with evil, Burke leans heavily on the images of death and brutality that define the actors in this play: the wealthy family raping the environment for profit; Clete’s star-crossed love affair with a married woman who turns him inside out; a monster who carries the scent of death wherever he goes; Dixon’s unexpected relationship with the grossly overweight sister of a sadistic detective; Gretchen’s carefully staged interactions with those who underestimate her to the final denouement with a man who will not die. Throughout, Burke delivers his usual homilies, viewing the world through the lens of experience, waxing both poetic and despairing.
There is a pervasive sense that Dave and Clete are at the end of their long run, both scarred and bent, Clete courting death one way or another yet always on hand when Dave is in trouble. Perhaps this is Burke’s way of passing the scepter on to the next generation, but Alafair and Gretchen (her smile is the inspiration for the title) are neither substantial nor inspirational. The damaged Gretchen exudes her own brand of menace without benefit of Dave’s natural compassion or Clete’s ongoing agony from the burden of his life’s experiences. For the first time in years, I am disappointed, uninspired and bored with the incessant brutality that is too infrequently alleviated by Burke’s prose.