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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Book Shelf

Mysteries

July 26, 1998|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

James Lee Burke's 10th novel about long-suffering Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux, "Sunset Limited," is his first for a new publisher, Doubleday (309 pages, $24.95). Other than that, all things remain pretty much the same. This is both good and bad news.

The good is that Burke's prose is as richly poetic and mesmerizing as ever. The bad is that the author continues to use his prodigious talent to tell a story we've heard several times before. (Last year, he tried to shift gears with "Cimarron Rose," the start of a new series about a Montana lawyer; but that troubled protagonist seemed to be nothing more than Robicheaux in boots.)

The innovation this time is that instead of one wraith from the past haunting Dave, there are two: labor leader Jack Flynn, whose 40-year-old murder by crucifixion was never solved, and Ida Broussard, dead 20 years, presumably by her own hand. That means we have double the number of usual returning natives: Flynn's children, who come home seeking some sort of delayed justice; and Ida's ex-con widower Cool Breeze, who blows into town determined to stir things up. There's yet another of Burke's obnoxious West Coast movie-makers on location (Dave's bayou is getting more runaway film action than Montreal); another swinish Southern aristocrat; another sleazy New Orleans mobster whom Dave's buddy Clete gets to beat to a pulp; another psycho whom Dave's lesbian partner, Helen, gets to beat to a pulp; and the usual assorted enigmatic, secret-sharing townsfolk.

Still, deja vu and all, the novel is one of the best-written you're likely to read this year. Burke is such a fine stylist that regardless of how many times he rewrites his previous books, he still merits our full attention.

*

How does one describe Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child's "Die Trying" (Putnam, 384 pages, $23.95)? An American James Bond without the soigne? A rootless loner version of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan? An only slightly less insufferable clone of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt?

I missed Reacher's debut last year in "Killing Floor." If it was as wonderful as the glowing quotes provided by the publisher indicate, it's hard to explain why this sequel is such a clunker. In it, Reacher just happens to be passing by when armed terrorists kidnap a beautiful FBI agent whose father is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The kidnappers could knock Reacher out or shoot him or ignore him. But they decide to take the rugged, 6-foot-5 ex-military policeman along--probably because, like all criminals, they secretly want to be caught.

Reacher is the kind of unflappable, self-sufficient guy who works out bullet trajectories in his head, adjusting for wind vectors, and who also can rip an iron ring from a stone wall with his bare hands. The FBI agent is pretty hot stuff herself. Here's Child's description of her sudden acceptance of her military father's genetic legacy: "She felt her genes boiling through her. Before, they'd felt like resented intruders. Now they felt warm and whole and good." With her and her boiling genes and Reacher and his strength of 10, the kidnapper-terrorists might as well kiss their plans for Armageddon goodbye.

*

Dale Furutani's first two crime novels, "Death in Little Tokyo" and "The Toyotomi Blades," were entertaining contemporary tales about Ken Tanaka, a hapless amateur private eye who stumbles into murder. Furutani's new one, "Death at the Crossroads: A Samurai Mystery" (Morrow, 210 pages, $22), is a more ambitious work, a tale set in 1603--a turning point in Japanese history, according to the author, when the new shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, began a period of oppression that lasted 250 years.

"Crossroads' " protagonist is Matsuyama Kaze, a ronin (a samurai without a master) on a (three-book) quest to find his lord's daughter, abducted during the siege of their castle. Here, his search is sidetracked by a corpse he discovers at the crossroads of the title. The search for the killer is properly intriguing, and, when you add the fascinating background, distinctive characters, unusual culture and unique hero, you have a sure cure for readers sick to death of standard mystery fare.

*

The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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