Burning Angel, by James Lee Burke

>> Monday, March 17, 2014

TITLE: Burning Angel
AUTHOR: James Lee Burke

PAGES: 468

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: 8th in the Dave Robicheaux series

Sonny Boy Marsallas, a New Orleans street hustler, entrusts Detective Dave Robicheaux with a mysterious notebook, kicking off a series of violent incidents and raising questions that need answers, and fast… What did Sonny’s girlfriend know that got her murdered? Why is Sonny known as Red Angel by Central American guerrillas? And what do the Mafia want with a desolate stretch of New Iberia? This time Sonny Boy may have pushed his luck with the Giacano family one deal too far. A rich, sardonic and terrifying portrayal of contemporary America with a setting which is as charged as an electric storm.

This was the book chosen for my January book club. It's the 8th entry in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series of crime thrillers/detective novels set in Louisiana. Dave Robicheaux is a detective in a rural parish (I get the feeling he used to work in the big city earlier in the series). At the start, he runs into an old contact, Sonny Boy Marsallas, who entrusts him a notebook. After that, all hell breaks lose. Clearly someone is after Sonny Boy, but who is it, amongst the legions who might have a problem with him? The man spent some time as a DEA agent and a mercenary in Latin America at the time really nasty stuff was going on. He also has mafia connections. People related to all of this seem to be crawling out of the woodwork, and Dave doesn't know what's going on.

I’m going to be pretty unfair here. I suppose for what it is, the book may be well done. All the fans of the series on goodreads and amazon seem to think so. It’s just that I really, really, really don’t like what it is. I wouldn’t choose to read about mobsters and criminals and generally dodgy people living in what comes across here as a real shithole. And if I accidentally started reading a book like that, I’d normally just not finish it. Guess that’s the thing about book clubs. Picking up stuff you wouldn’t normally read can work, but it can also go horribly wrong.

So yeah, all I have are gripes. Even the things that normally would be good (e.g. a vivid setting) turned out to be negatives for me (e.g. the more vivid a nasty, horrible setting is, the more I hate it).

I particularly hated the way the cops worked here. They were awfully ready to operate outside of the rules, it was done as a matter of course. Dave’s partner Helen beats up suspects, he smashes a glass into someone’s face because they give him a bit of lip, and all sorts of stuff like that. They are very self-righteous about it, too, going on about how “when the rules start working for the lowlifes, get a new set of rules” and crap like that. No. Just no. The rules are there because the police DOES NOT have the right to decide whether someone is guilty or not. And at the same time this crap morality is being preached, violence is glamourised and criminals made protagonists. Ugh.

Even if I did like this sort of book, I think I might still have had trouble with this particular title. For starters, it really doesn't stand alone very well. I felt like I was lost, because the characters clearly had a history that strongly influenced their characters and relationships, and Burke didn't find it necessary to allow new readers to catch up at all. It made it very hard to understand why people were reacting in the way they did. Also, I often found the slang completely incomprehensible, the sort of thing I just couldn’t figure out from context. That happened all the fricking time.

Oh, and by the way, the female characters were really horribly done. Mainly they were pure stereotypes (like Ruthie Jean, who couldn’t have been more of a cliche if she'd tried, or Helen, the butch lesbian). The one who sounded like she might be a bit more interesting (Dave's wife, Bootsie, whose late husband was apparently a mobster) felt like a blank. Bootsie had absolutely no personality, she was just there. Infuriating.

The ending was particularly bad. Things just petered out, without much resolution. During the book club discussion, even those who'd liked the book couldn't really explain what the 'solution' to the mystery plotline was. To be fair, I don't think this was a mystery/thriller at all. I think it's literary fiction that borrows some of the staples and conventions of a crime thriller. As such, Burke is not concerned with story and plot at all, he seems more interested in creating an atmosphere and characters. Still, it was unsatisfying.

MY GRADE: A D. I really didn't enjoy it at all.


Barb in Maryland 17 March 2014 at 18:26  

The Dave Robicheaux books are, unfortunately, best read in order. But they are, indeed, usually dreary and filled with unlikable people. Bootsie does come into her own as a character in later books.
I pretty much kept up with the series for a long time--but quit when Cletis (whom I really disliked) became more of a main character and Bootsie died.
I suspect that had y'all chosen to read "In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead" you might have had a bit more enjoyable reading experience--but that's just a guess.

Rosario 17 March 2014 at 19:58  

I wonder why the guy who chose this one didn't go for something earlier in the series. He's a big fan and has read them all. Oh, well, I don't think I'm going to be giving it another try! :)

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