James Lee Burke is a man who lives and breathes the land he describes. Prior to his success, he worked as a labourer, teacher, and social worker amongst other vocations, sometimes in near poverty as he raised his four kids and persevered with his writing.
‘The Neon Rain’ is the first in a long-standing series of crime books featuring Dave Robicheaux, one of my all-time favourite troubled investigators. Dave shares certain parallels with other incantations from the genre – notably, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, described in ‘The Sins of the Fathers’ review: both men are ex-coppers who have crossed the line into alcoholism. And both journey down their dark alleyways not for monetary gain as the primary motive, but because of a staunch moral code that demands for justice to be served.
But whereas Block’s books are short, sharp, concrete affairs, JLB’s are longer, more descriptive, with an evocation for the New Orleans landscape that is almost poetic at times, and which makes this distinctive setting a prevailing central character. Here’s an example, the opening line in fact, which breaks one of Elmore Leonard’s rules by describing the weather in the first sentence!
‘The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color (sic) of torn plums…’
Nice, right? Then later, we have this:
‘I could see the surgically perfect fields of sugarcane and sweet potatoes, the crumbling ruins of the nineteenth century camps silhouetted against the sun’s afterglow…’
But although it’s not short of metaphor and simile, this book is by no means pretentious or clichéd – on the contrary, ‘The Neon Rain’ in hardboiled to the core, conveying themes of racism, poverty and addiction with the impact of a raw steak hitting the slab. For example, Chapter One is where we first meet Dave, attending death-row to hear the confession of a condemned man on the night of his execution, a deathly foreshadow for a book steeped in violence, sociopaths, perverts and miscreants. Mary Poppins this ain’t.
A little while back, I set about trying to dissect ‘The Neon Rain’, chapter by chapter, to try to disentangle what gave the book its magic. A few things came to light: first up, we have a strong and compelling plot, dealing with illegal arms trades, addiction, the mob, and the death of a poor black working girl; also, there are cliff hangers and clues galore implanted in the plot, which come together neatly, delivering successful ‘Oh yeah..’ moments as good crime writing should.
Additionally, though, JLB has introduced unforgettable characters, the real reason I think I read and re-read his stuff – Dave Robicheaux differs from Matt Scudder in that he is more volatile, but also more tender. His history in Vietnam is a plague, and we feel for his attempts to stay sober and keep one step ahead of the thirsty demons from his past that want him drunk and alone. He is a man who will make grave mistakes as he avenges the land’s most vulnerable and overlooked, because to not would be an abolition of his core. Here’s a nice quote that comes prior to the book’s denouement:
‘No, I wasn’t out of control. It wasn’t whiskey or an adrenaline surge that was loose in my system. I simply had to set something right.’
He had to. No choice. And in this sense, Dave is a quintessential hero, like Marlow, Spenser, Reacher et al.
The secondary characters Dave encounters in the novel are all unusual and intriguing – of particular significance is Dave’s chaotic partner of sorts, Clete Purcell, who makes his debut appearance here and goes onto to have larger roles in the following books. Both men are war veterans, but whereas Dave has attempted to amend for his past, Clete flees his, drowning it with corruption, alcohol and brutality. Both men are mirrors of how the other could be, like Jekyll and Hyde. They are strong, but they are victims themselves, with blind spots that make them vulnerable. Like all good wingmen, Clete is also memorable for his appearance. Here’s an unforgettable mnemonic description early on:
‘Clete’s face looked like it was made from boiled pigskin, except there stitch scars over the bridge of his nose…’
There are also great antagonists in the plot, another hallmark of great crime writing. Take for example Didi Gee:
‘His hands were as big as skillets, his neck as thick as a fire hydrant, his curly black head as round and thick as a cannon ball…’
And later, when Dave is accosted by sadist Billy:
‘He was tall and angular, his hair mowed into his scalp like a peeled onion, his stomach as flat as a shingle under the big metal buckle on his blue jeans…on his right arm was a tattoo that said KILL THEM ALL, LET GOD SORT THEM.’
The interplay between characters is always vibrant and full of colloquialisms. I’ve never been to the Deep South, and know nothing of lily pads or poor-boy sandwiches, but the dialogue creates a sense of place that seems wholly authentic. In one of his recent online threads, JLB commented on colloquialisms in writing and their uses:
‘Often, the best words are those used by people of humble origins. People of the land and people who are around animals are often closer to the realities of life…Good dialogue should serve at least one of three purposes, and ideally all three. It should reveal character; it should further the action of the story; and it should contribute to the description of the environment.’
With these in mind, when I took apart ‘The Neon Rain’, I gained a new level of insight into this writer’s honed craftsmanship, and I’ve tried to incorporate this rule in my own writing. Cheers JLB!
This debut is one of the best in the Robicheaux books for me. One thing I don’t like so much in some of the latter ones is the peculiar shifts in narrative, which sees Dave’s first person voice subtly move into a third person delivery. I get why JLB probably did this – writing in the first-person voice, particularly in a long-running series, must put certain restrictions on the writer, who can only deliver the world through his protagonist’s viewpoint. For intricate stories, this restriction must create real barriers to plot delivery. However, when you’ve got a narrator as compelling as Dave Robicheaux, I as a reader would be happy for the world to be solely seen through his tainted eyes. I’ve not got bored of him yet. I also get that this is a minor point, which many readers might not even notice or care about, but hey…
It seems JLB’s popularity remains ubiquitous. I saw how Rod Reynold’s recently cited ‘The Neon Rain’ in his top-ten all time best mob-themed crime novels; when I attended an Arvon Crime Writing course earlier in the year, I was chuffed that Mark Billingham was citing JLB’s influence on him; and Dave Robicheaux’s twenty-first appearance in the eponymous ‘Robicheaux’, hit bookshelves earlier this year, and to rapturous reviews. Not bad for a writer now in his eighties.