Monday, April 05, 2010

Formulaic, but tasty nonetheless

I've come to think that formulaic is not a terribly useful descriptor for books. You can be formulaic and terrible, like say James Patterson, or formulaic and awesome like James Lee Burke. Burke's formula is fairly simple. Hero Dave Robicheaux faces a mix of crooked New Orleans cops, mobsters, arrogant rich people, and the odd crazed right winger. These folks are screwing over the locals and Robicheaux investigates, usually beating down three or four people, with the help of his violent friend Cletus. It takes awhile for him to figure out what's up and he generally gets a decent, if flawed, resolution.

That said, his books are wonderful reads. Half of the books are invested the side stories of his characters. The relationship of Dave with his wife and his adopted daughter are real and are integrated into the plots. His bad guys are perfectly sleazy, the kind of people that drive you up the wall, but in this case are also deeply engaged in crime. Burke's portrayal of Lousiana is part a love note to a people and a place and part a lament at what they have let happen to it.

Over the weekend, I read Purple Cane Road, one of the later books in the series, in just one or two sittings. This is one of his better ones overall. It is fairly lean with a straightforward plot. While trying to help out a woman on death row, Dave hears bad stories about his long missing mother. Namely that after she left him and his father, she became a whore and was killed for it. This does not bring out the best in Dave. Blocking his path to the truth are a bizzaro hit man, the Mob, a passel of old enemies and maybe even leading politicians in the state.

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