Several of James Lee Burke's more recent novels about Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux have been examples of style over substance. This is not meant as a complaint, exactly; not when you're dealing with a stylist whose poetic way with words is stunningly effective, whether being used to describe bayou tranquillity or barroom violence. Unlike others in the literary brother- and sisterhood who go for the flow even when it results in meaningless babble, Burke crafts paragraphs as cohesive as they are mesmerizing.
Here's a sample from the 10th and current entry in the Robicheaux series, "Jolie Blon's Bounce" (Simon & Schuster, $25, 349 pages). It's a description of the protagonist/narrator's reaction to a melody by Guitar Slim.
"Without ever using words to describe either the locale or the era in which he had lived, his song re-created the Louisiana I had been raised in: the endless fields of sugarcane thrashing in the wind under a darkening sky, yellow dirt roads and the Hadacol and Jax beer signs nailed to the side of general stores, horse-drawn buggies that people tethered in stands of gum trees during Sunday Mass, clapboard juke joints where Gatemouth Brown and Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price played, and the brothel districts that flourished from sunset to dawn and somehow became invisible in the morning light."
It may seem picky to want a strong, original main theme to accompany such appealing riffs. On occasion, such as Robicheaux's last outing, "Purple Cane Road," Burke provides it. "Bounce" settles for variations on earlier compositions.
The book is not shy of event, what with Dave puzzling through two murders--the victims are a teen queen and a drug-addicted prostitute--while battling his own addiction to painkillers, the result of a brutal and emasculating beating at the hands of a septuagenarian hard case named Legion Guidry. But much of it seems like a familiar refrain. The persecuted, immensely talented Cajun blues singer, the saintly drifter, the scion guarding the secret scandal of his aristocratic family, the offspring of a Mafia goon suffering from sins of the father, and the smarmy show-biz carrion have all drifted through previous Dave capers.
So have the incredibly evil, possibly supernatural villains, though, as the author explains on the abridged audio version of the novel (though not on the unabridged), these particular bad boys--the aforementioned Legion and a Bible drummer named Marvin Oates--are part of his first use of biblical allegory.
The specific reference is the New Testament tale in which Jesus Christ encounters a man possessed by an evil demon named Legion. Christ casts out the demon and sends it into the body of a herd of swine that waddles into the ocean to drown. That Burke is able to work his novel to a point where a Christlike figure (not Dave, I should note) confronts the vile Guidry within casting distance of pigs is no minor achievement.
He even manages to bring this off while stirring up considerable suspense over the fate of his hero's only friend, Clete Purcel, who lies bleeding to death while the epic good versus evil battle takes place. Since Purcel, one of the most likable reprobates in modern fiction, has provided tang throughout the Robicheaux saga, it seems unlikely that he'll be joining Legion and the pigs in the nether world. But one can never be sure about these things. Authors, even those as canny as Burke, can and have made such fatal mistakes.
Adultery and Homicide in N.Y.'s High Society
Jane Stanton Hitchcock's "Social Crimes" (Talk Miramax Books, $22.95, 368 pages) is a novel of adultery and homicide among Manhattan's elite that reads like Dominick Dunne lite. The book's heroine and narrator, Jo Slater, announces at its start, "Murder was never my goal in life." Regrettably, her real life goal is much less compelling: She wants to reign as the WASP queen of New York society. What else might we expect from a woman who has chosen Marie Antoinette as a role model?
Hitchcock keeps the reader hanging on for nearly two-thirds of the book with a plot that plays out like a high society "All About Eve," in which an outwardly demure, impoverished little French countess enters Jo's perfect life and rapidly replaces her in it. Students of the East Coast social swim may detect some allusions to actual people or events hidden in the author's fiction. Such gossipy frills notwithstanding, the book takes a few steps down in class once the usurpation is complete.