When James Lee Burke's Cimarron Rose came out last year, his hardcore fans (me included) were disappointed that it did not feature Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux. Turns out we needn't have worried; Cimarron Rose was excellent in its own right, and nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award for Best Mystery of 1997.
This year, Robicheaux is back in Sunset Limited, a darkly atmospheric tale of racism, greed, and revenge. Some 40 years back as a boy in school, Robicheaux had been acquainted with a girl named Megan Flynn, the daughter of a radical labor organizer. Robicheaux and his father had the sobering experience of discovering Megan's father Jack Flynn crucified with 16-penny nails against a barn wall. The killers were never found. In the intervening years, Robicheaux went to Vietnam, returned more or less intact, and became a police officer in the Louisiana bayou country. Megan Flynn bounced in and out of foster homes and picked fruit with the migrant workers before finding her niche as a photojournalist. Drawn to controversial stories, Megan has now come back to New Iberia Parish to investigate an alleged case of prison abuse, but it soon becomes clear that she has another agenda in mind: stirring up ghosts.
In his previous novels, Burke has woven a bayou tapestry of past and present, drawing on the rich history of the region: the Civil War, the offshore oil boom, segregation, and the good ol' boy network. Sunset Limited is no exception. In many respects, the past lives on in the children; the privilege (or the lack thereof) leaves scars that become part of the genetic material, passing from generation to generation. Old scores, some dating back to the Lincoln era, fester in the bayou milieu.
In Robicheaux, Burke has created a complex hero: unbendingly loyal to those who have earned his trust; strong, yet tender and sensitive; the aesthete jock who finds sustenance in his surroundings, his wife, and his adopted daughter. Any new James Lee Burke novel is cause for a visit to your local bookstore or library; a Dave Robicheaux story is doubly so. Sunset Limited should be on the short list for 1998's Edgar Award consideration.