James Lee Burke’s Sunset Limited

Sunset Limited by James Lee Burke.  Doubleday, 1998.


Forty years ago, a labor leader was crucified behind a barn in Louisiana’s New Iberia Parish.  A young Dave Robicheaux discovered the body while walking with his father, and the image burned itself in his mind.


Now, that labor leader’s daughter, Megan Flynn, is all grown up, and she’s returned to New Iberia to give her old friend Dave Robicheaux a tip about a small time criminal named Cool Breeze Broussard.  Her tip sets off a string of events that lead right back to her father’s murder all those years ago.  Now Robicheaux has got more on his plate than he bargained for, because the conspiracy that surrounds Megan’s father’s death involves some of Louisiana’s society elites.


James Lee Burke is definitely not a minimalist.  When you open a Burke novel, especially the fifteen or so Dave Robicheaux books set in Louisiana’s New Iberia Parish, you get vast descriptive passages of the landscape, and fleeting moments such as a sunset painted the golden hue of a biscuit, or fish jumping on the sun-glazed surface of the Gulf of Mexico, become lasting images of beauty in his competent hands.


But his characters are also drawn with a deft hand.  Every single one of them, good guys and bad alike, are highly flawed individuals, and their voices are instantly recognizable.  Each one is haunted by a demon.  But perhaps none are as angry as Dave Robicheaux.  In one memorable scene, he busts into an elite country club and arrests the story’s main bad guy, knowing full well he doesn’t have enough evidence to make the arrest stick.  He does it because he’s boiling over with a rage he can’t control:


“Maybe it was the long day, or the fact the photos had allowed me to actually see the ordeal of Jack Flynn, one that time had made an abstraction, or maybe I simply possessed a long-buried animus toward Archer Terrebonne and the imperious and self-satisfied arrogance that he and his kind represented.  But long ago I had learned that anger, my old enemy, had many catalysts and they all led ultimately to one consequence, an eruption of torn red-and-black color behind the eyes, an alcoholic blackout without the booze, then an adrenaline surge that left me trembling, out of control, and possessed of a destructive capability that later filled me with shame.

            “I grabbed him by the back of his belt and hoisted him out of the chair, pushed him facedown on the table, into his food, and cuffed his wrists behind him, hard, ratcheting the curved steel tongues deep into the locks, crimping the veins like green string.”


The truly powerful thing about these characters, especially Robicheaux, is that he can’t allow himself to live comfortably.  He’s set up from the beginning for disappointment, and though he may solve the case in a very limited way, there can’t be any happy endings in a land where wealth and privilege routinely protect a man from facing the consequences of his actions, no matter how heinous the crime.


Sunset Limited is truly a wonderful achievement, and might possibly be the best Robicheaux book so far.  Its plot is less convoluted than a normal James Lee Burke book, and its characters and scenery are drawn so well they stay with you long after you’re done reading.  And for horror fans, there’s an especially wonderful chapter where Robicheaux visits the local black community’s Potter’s Field to disinter a twenty year old corpse.  Burke’s prose, his fine control of mood and place, make this scene a natural place to start if you want to see what today’s top thriller writers have learned from yesterday’s horror masters.

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