JAMES LEE BURKE author of LIGHT OF THE WORLD
A New York Times bestselling author many times over, James Lee Burke is a two-time Edgar Award-winner whose every book is cause for excitement, especially those in the wildly popular Dave Robicheaux series. In Light of the World, sadist and serial killer Asa Surrette narrowly escaped the death penalty for the string of heinous murders he committed while capital punishment was outlawed in Kansas. But following a series of damning articles written by Dave Robicheaux’s daughter Alafair about possible other crimes committed by Surette, the killer escapes from a prison transport van and heads to Montana—where an unsuspecting Dave happens to have gone to take in the sweet summer air, accompanied by Alafair, his wife Molly, faithful partner Clete, and Clete’s newfound daughter, Gretchen Horowitz, whom readers met in Burke’s most recent bestseller Creole Belle. [READ MORE]
I was never good at solving mysteries. I don’t mean the kind cops solve or the ones you read about in novels or watch on television or on a theatrical screen. I’m not talking about the mystery of Creation, either, or the unseen presences that perhaps reside just the other side of the physical world. I’m talking about evil, perhaps without capitalization, but evil just the same, the kind whose origins sociologists and psychiatrists have trouble explaining.
Police officers keep secrets, not unlike soldiers who return from foreign battlefields with a syndrome survivors of the Great War called the thousand-yard stare. I believe the account of the apple taken from the forbidden tree is a metaphorical warning about looking too deeply into the darker potential of the human soul. The photographs of the inmates at Bergen-Belsen or Andersonville Prison or the bodies in the ditch at My Lai disturb us in a singular fashion because those instances of egregious human cruelty were committed for the most part by baptized Christians. At some point we close the book that contains photographs of this kind and put the book away and convince ourselves that these events were an aberration, the consequence of leaving soldiers too long in the field or letting a handful of misanthropes take control of a bureaucracy. It is not in our interest to extrapolate a larger meaning.
Hitler, Nero, Ted Bundy, the Bitch of Buchenwald? Their deeds are not ours.
But if these individuals are not like us, if they do not descend from the same gene pool and have the same DNA as we, then who were they and what turned them into monsters?
Every homicide cop lives with images he cannot rinse from his dreams; every cop who has handled investigations into child abuse has seen a side of his fellow man he never discusses with anyone, not his wife, not his colleagues, not his confessor or his bartender. There are certain burdens you do not visit on people of good will.
When I was in plainclothes at the N.O.P.D., I used to deal with problems such as these in a saloon on Magazine Street, not far from the old Irish Channel. With its brass-railed bar and felt-covered bourre tables and wood-bladed fans, it became my secular church where the Louisiana of my youth, the green-gold, mossy, oak-shaded world of Bayou Teche, was only one drink away. I would start with four fingers of Jack in a thick mug, with a sweating Budweiser back, and by midnight I would be alone, at the end of the bar, armed, drunk, and hunched over my glass, morally and psychologically insane.
I had come to feel loathing and disgust with the mythology that characterized the era in which I lived. I didn’t “serve” in Southeast Asia; I “survived” and watched innocent people and better men than I die in large numbers while I was spared by a hand outside myself. I didn’t “serve and protect” as a police officer; I witnessed the justice system’s dysfunction and the government’s empowerment of corporations and the exploitation of those who had no political voice. And while I brooded on all that was wrong in the world, I continued to stoke the furnace inside me with Black Jack and Smirnoff’s and Five Star Hennessey and finally two jiggers of Scotch inside a glass of milk at sunrise, constantly suppressing my desire to lock down on my enemies with the .45 automatic I had purchased in Saigon’s brothel district and that I slept with as I would with a woman.
My real problem wasn’t the militarization of my country or any of the other problems I’ve mentioned. The real problem went back to a mystery that had beset me since the destruction of my natal home and family. My father Big Aldous was on the monkey board of an offshore drilling well when the drill bit punched into an early pay sand and a spark jumped off the wellhead and a mushroom of flaming oil and natural gas rose through the rigging like an inferno ballooning from the bottom of an elevator shaft. My mother, Alafair Mae Guillory, was seduced and blackmailed by a gambler and pimp named Mack, whom I hated more than any human being I ever knew, not because he turned her into a barroom whore but because of the Asian men I killed in his stead.
Rage and bloodlust and alcoholic blackouts became the only form of serenity I knew. From Saigon to the Philippines, from China Town in Los Angeles to the drunk tanks of New Orleans, the same questions haunted me and gave me no rest. Were some people made different in the womb, born without a conscience, intent on destroying everything that was good in the world? Or could a black wind blow the weather vane in the wrong direction for any of us and reshape our lives and turn us into people we no longer recognized? I knew there was an answer out there someplace, if I could only drink myself into the right frame of mind and find it.
I stayed ninety-proof for many years and got a bachelor’s degree in self-immolation and a doctorate in chemically induced psychosis. When I finally entered sobriety I thought perhaps the veil would be lifted and I would find answers to all the Byzantine riddles that had confounded me.
That was not to be the case. Instead, a man who was perhaps one of the most wicked creatures on earth made his way into our lives. This is a tale that perhaps I shouldn’t share. But it’s not one I want to keep inside me, either.
Light of the World is the twentieth novel to feature Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux and his partner Clete Purcel. What, if anything, has changed about the way you write Dave and Clete over the years?JLB: I don’t believe people change. I think they simply grow into what they already were. Dave and Clete grow into the fine men they have always been, namely, the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide.Dave’s and Clete’s daughters—Alafair and Gretchen—are featured in this novel. Fans seemed to love meeting Gretchen Horowitz in Creole Belle. What do you like about writing the younger generation of Bobbsey Twins?JLB: Gretchen Horowitz and Alafair Robicheaux are both strong women. Much like the relationship between Dave and Clete, one possesses what the other lacks. Gretchen was abused terribly as a child, but through her courage and her refusal to let the world hurt her again, she becomes a female knight errant, a warrior not unlike Jean D’Arc, and gives voice and refuge to those who have no place to flee.Alafair is the intellectual novelist and Stanford law graduate. She immediate recognizes the artist at work in Gretchen, who put herself through film school in Los Angeles. Alafair has a black belt in karate and, like Gretchen, takes no guff from anyone. They’re a formidable pair, and the bad guys know it.In Light of the World, Dave Robicheaux runs up against his most evil foe since Legion Guidry, a villain many of your fans remember from Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002). What draws you to write about men like Guidry and Asa Surette, the antagonist of Light of the World?JLB: Both these figures are allegorical ones. They represent pure evil, the kind that psychiatrists and sociologists cannot explain. In the books we meet truly vicious men and corporations whose agenda is to dominate the earth, and sometimes we wonder if evil might not prevail. My personal belief is that evil eventually consumes itself. Unfortunately that process often takes a very long time.This novel is set in Montana, where you currently live. What do you love most about Big Sky country? How are the horses these days?JLB: There is no such thing as a bad day in rural Montana. The deer are starting to come down from the hills and the horses are glad to see their oldtime pals again. No hunting is allowed on our ranch, so we have many animal friends on the property, and flocks of turkeys as well. We even have wolves, although I would like to see these guys go somewhere else.If you could meet Dave Robicheaux in the flesh someday, what would you say to him?JLB: I’d say, “Been reading any good books lately?”What do you think he would say back?JLB: I suspect he might say, “Did Clete Purcel put you up to this?”
In a career spanning over fifty years, thirty novels—twenty of them featuring his beloved series character Dave Robicheaux—and awards including a Grand Master Lifetime Achievement honor from the Mystery Writers of America, James Lee Burke has proven himself “the heavyweight champ…a great American novelist whose work, taken individually or as a whole, is unsurpassed.” (So says longtime fan Michael Connelly, and I agree!)
With this latest entry in the Robicheaux series, readers are drawn to Montana’s spectacular Big Sky country as Dave, his daughter Alafair, and his best friend Clete Purcel take a much-needed vacation from the events that ended Creole Belle. (Side note: Alafair Robicheaux is the namesake of Jim’s real-life daughter Alafair, a bestselling novelist in her own right.)
In contrast to the tranquil beauty of Flathead Lake and the colorful summertime larch and fir and pine trees unspooling across unblemished ranch land, a venomous presence lurks in the caves and hills, intent on destroying innocent lives. Light of the World is an allegorical tale unfolding against a landscape “where dinosaurs and mastodons had once fed and played among the buttercups and ice lilies.” But it’s even more than that. James Lee Burke connects this modern saga of good versus evil back to the 3rd Century A.D. and the court of tyrannical Roman emperor Caracalla…
Reader, you’ve got a big surprise coming.
There is a reason the Denver Post called Jim “America’s best novelist” and why The New York Times has anointed him “the reigning champ of nostalgia noir.” And why Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel—The Bobbsey Twins from Homicide—have enjoyed thirty years atop the bestseller lists. If you know and love James Lee Burke, you will revel in the epic masterpiece that is Light of the World. And if you’re new to the Robicheaux party, well lucky you, there are nineteen more where this came from!
Sarah Knight | Senior Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org