'Burning Angel' stands out

By Greg D'Avis

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Burning Angel

by James Lee Burke

Hyperion, $22.95

Finally, after 13 books and umpteen years of writing, Louisiana mystery novelist James Lee Burke is starting to get one iota of the respect and attention he deserves.

Burning Angel, Burke's latest and the eighth book in the Detective Dave Robicheaux series, should only serve to increase the notice accorded the series. Even in a summer overflowing with good new mystery novels, this one stands out.

Burke is one of the rare genre writers whose work transcends his chosen field. Putting aside the fact that he's successfully put out books in several non-mystery fields, he's also a damn good writer, one of the finest in America today. This is the stuff that will be hailed as "classic" a few decades down the line.

In Burning Angel, gambler Sonny Boy Marsallus is returning to New Orleans several years after fleeing south of the border to escape the mob. Marsallus, his life still in danger, passes a diary of his exploits as a mercenary in Central America on to Robicheaux before disappearing again to protect himself - since someone obviously wants the diary, and is more than willing to kill Marsallus to get it.

At the same time, a local family enlists Robicheaux's aid in a fight to keep the land they've lived on for a century. This subplot gives Burke the chance to delve into local Louisiana history, which he does quite well.

Robicheaux is one of the truly original characters in detective fiction. He's a mass of complexities, a character who holds other people to extremely high moral standards but is often more than willing to bend the rules of his police department to get results. It makes Robicheaux fascinating -

Another hallmark of Burke's work is the colorful supporting cast. Marsallus is a great addition to the Robicheaux mythos, a shady but curiously moral character. All of the other regulars are back, as well - most notably Alafair, Dave's adopted daughter, who is now entering her teenage years and dealing with the resulting troubles, and Robicheaux's friend and frequent partner Clete is around as well, offering his usual outrageous comments and actions.

What truly makes Burke's work shine, though, is his portrayal of Louisiana life and history. He paints a rich portrait of the area, one that few authors today could hope to match.

It's always a worry with series authors that the next book could be the bad one, the novel where the author loses whatever he had that made his or her work special. Judging by Burning Angel, James Lee Burke's fans have nothing to worry about.

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