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The Old-timer and the Newbie:  Dave Robicheaux and Maureen Coughlin in NOLA Crime Fiction 2013

Review of

The Light of the World by James Lee Burke.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.
The Devil In Her Way by Bill Loehfelm.
New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013.

While Bill Loehfelm’s fourth novel, the sequel to Maureen Coughlin’s debut in The Devil She Knows, starts off with a bang, “The punch caught Maureen flush in the temple, striking near her right eye.” (3), James Lee Burke’s twentieth Dave Robicheaux novel opens with the main character’s confession, “I was never good at solving mysteries….I’m talking about evil. . .the kind whose origins sociologists and psychiatrists have trouble explaining.”  

It is Loehfelm’s epigraph from Mary Shelley that may answer Robicheaux’s reflection and that ties the two novels together in provocative ways:  “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe.  If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

While Burke’s novel does foreground an intangible evil—the metaphysical aspect that has haunted this series from its beginning, Loehfelm’s forefronts the sociological kind: the evil that results from poverty, from conditions in which people have had too little for too long, when they have had even that taken from them, and when they attempt to scrape something (back) together and when some attempt to grab it all.

Both novels center on strong women.  While Loehfelm delineates the character of New York Irish bar-tender turned New Orleans cop, Maureen Coughlin, encouraged and backed up by bombshell Detective Sergeant Atkinson, Burke develops the characters of Robicheaux’s daughter, Alafair, now an attorney and novelist (introduced in In The Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead), and Purcel’s daughter, former hit-man, now film-school graduate, Gretchen Horowitz (introduced in Creole Belle). Burke also celebrates the stolid, serene, but fiercely protective nature of Robicheaux’s third wife, Molly Boyle. 

The masterful elements of Burke’s writing are evident in The Light of the World as always:  his ability to portray daily life and the foibles and idiosyncrasies of ordinary people in ordinary small town life— in this instance, in and around Missoula, Montana, where the Purcel and Robicheaux clans are visiting the writer Albert Hollister, and his skill at depicting setting and scene—especially outdoors, where every sense, smell, taste, sight, sound, and touch is evoked.  As Burke’s depicts humans’ interface with nature, sometimes the sensations evoked are unpleasant:

I walked ahead of her along the base of the bluff, through a low spot in the road where the soil was dark from the morning rain and marked by the tracks of someone wearing needle-nosed cowboy boots.  . .Farther on, lying in the dirt next to a round boulder, were an empty potted-meat can, broken pieces of saltine crackers, and a spray of what looked like fingernail clippings.

There was not movement in the trees, no sound anywhere, not even a pinecone rolling down the hillside. . . .(23)

Sometimes the artistry in his description borders on metaphysical itself:

Many of the boulders are flat-topped and are wonderful to walk out on so you can fly-cast and create a wide-looping figure eight over your head and not hang your fly in the trees.  Wild roses grow along the banks, as well as bushes and leafy vines that turn orange and scarlet and apricot and plum in the autumn.  When the wind comes up the canon, leaves and pine needles balloon into the air, as though the entirety of the environment is in reality a single organism that creates its own rebirth and obeys is own rules and takes no heed of man’s presence (326).

While the past chases Robicheaux’s characters, with Alafair being stalked by a serial killer she once interviewed, Gretchen confronting her time in “the life,” and even Hollister revisiting his teaching days, the post-Katrina present harangues Loehfelm’s cast. 

While multiple plots and the tragedies and travails of several families and at least four states converge in The Light at the End of the World, Loehfelm keeps his focus simple and straightforward, examining only the psyches of two:  cop Maureen and perp/victim, Marques.

The best aspect of Loehfelm’s book is his depiction of the clash of cultures occurring as the folk who stayed and returning New Orleanians confront newcomers.  That collision is a sociological study in itself.  Old-timers teach Coughlin the tricks of the trade and the history of the city, including the history of police corruption and community policing.  She herself maneuvers Central City, the CBD, and the French Quarter, visiting tourist highlights and still-desolate areas, getting lost and finding her way.

While The Devil In Her Way proclaims  that post-Katrina NOPD policy is no longer protect and serve but CYA (cover your ass) and other law personnel encourage Purcel and Robicheaux to do the same, the underlying appeal of both texts is the fact that their heroes and heroines—and their sidekicks—refuse to do so. All of them, heroes and heroines, fight against the odds of apathy and corruption to make Purcel’s hope at the end of The Light come true, that the “good outweighs the bad” (548).   Their commitment is the driving force of both texts and, in the words of Coughlin’s training officer in The Devil, “a thing of beauty” (273).  

Reviewed by M. L. Byrd

M. L. Byrd, founding editor of the NOLA DIASPORA, knows what it means to miss New Orleans. She is currently teaching at Virginia State University.