Burning Angel, by James Lee Burke *****

I’ve enjoyed and reviewed the whole Robicheaux series over the course of the last year and a half, burningangeland began with a much more recent one that I read out of sequence because it found its way into my home. So now that I’ve commented multiple times upon the brilliance and eloquence of this writer, I just have to get this off my chest:

Does this protagonist EVER eat VEGETABLES? (Onions on a sandwich don’t count!)

We move through the plot lines with a steady series of meals, & this makes it realistic. Some crime/mystery writers have protagonists who appear to never eat or sleep, & at some point one starts to notice. This writer uses food to evoke a sense of setting, constantly parading before us his begniets, his boudin, his po’ boy sandwiches. He fries fish and gobbles that up, too.

In one of his novels his narrative mentions a bad guy as being among those who let their bodies get vastly overweight because they eat wrong and don’t care what they look like, and I want to say, maybe they didn’t get your excellent DNA, pal, because even though you jog and work out, your diet is a walking heart attack. Coffee, Dr. Pepper, fried fish, dairy, and starch. Holy crap.

Okay, I just had to rant this once about that, because I’ve been thinking about it awhile.

The story line itself is like others, except that it isn’t; by this time he has established a following, and the series is consistent in its approach and has characters we see again, and others that are hauntingly real, but that we probably won’t see. As always, Burke uses his characters to show us the ambiguity in humanity, and that sometimes the people you expect to be good guys aren’t all that good, and that sometimes the archetypical bad guy has some good in him, too. In this story, a gangster gives his life to save Dave’s. This also gives him one more dead person to talk to and dream about. But it isn’t stale; it makes me snuggle a bit more deeply under the comforter at night and think, “Ah yes! Here we go!”

If you are a reader of Burke’s who fancies Clete Purcel, as my spouse and I do (and my guy, who is almost always strictly a nonfiction reader, is completely hooked on this series and is reading ahead of me now, chuckling happily whenever he runs across Cletus), be assured he is an integral part of this particular story, and he’s in fine form.

The constant struggle Robicheaux finds throughout his career is that when you are a cop, you have a decent paycheck, the authority to do things that a private citizen cannot, and a certain amount of personal protection, especially in dealing with mobsters. But the problem with being a cop is that you’re working for an apparatus that is not set up to defend those who need it most:

“The big trade-off is one’s humanity…you start your career with the moral clarity of the youthful altruist, then gradually you begin to feel betrayed by those you supposedly protect and serve. You’re not welcome in their part of town…the most venal bondsman can walk with immunity through neighborhoods where you’ll be shot at by snipers. You begin to believe that there are those in our midst who are not part of the same gene pool. You think of them as subhuman…whom you treat in custody as you would humorous circus animals.”

From there, he describes the quick, slippery slope in which a cop may shoot a suspect who held something out that glinted in the very dark night and which the cop thought to be a weapon. After shooting the man with the screwdriver or car keys in his hand, a weapon with a filed serial number gets wrapped in the guy’s hand, then dropped nearby. And cops stand by one another in these cases. The corruption has solidified, and you are no longer on the side of the angels.

He does a nice job with character development here. His wife Bootsie is not the frightened and easily horrified woman she once was; when he launches himself out into the darkness to do something dangerous, she sends him off with the reminder: “Watch your ass, kiddo.”

Alafair, an enchanting toddler when the series started, has begun dating. She won’t let him call her ‘little guy’ anymore. And she learns how to use a gun, because it seems as if bad guys are always lurking around, waiting to exact revenge either on her father, or against him by harming her family. She wants to be ready.

He’s on the force; he’s off it. The bait shop/cafe doesn’t make more than 15K a year; the family can’t live off that. The private detective business Clete recruits him into doesn’t make good money either. The only takers are the bad guys they don’t want to deal with.

At one point, someone reminds him that having his badge means he gets to walk on the curb instead of in the gutter. But he is ambivalent, because being the enforcement arm of the US government isn’t pretty, and there’s no way to turn that around. Being a rural deputy rather than a city cop is the compromise he has made at this point, but it’s still a nasty business, and as usual, the ending is bittersweet.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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