A Stained White Radiance is the fifth of James Lee Burke’s novels about Dave Robicheaux, first a New Orleans police detective and now working for the sheriff’s department in his hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana. The series, which began with Neon Rain (1987), includes Black Cherry Blues (1989), which won an Edgar Award as the best mystery of its year from the Mystery Writers of America. Burke’s tough-guy style, evocation of place, and emphasis on the interlocking chain of corruption that threatens to engulf American society has earned him comparisons with the best contemporary crime writers, including Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, Loren Estleman, and Charles Willeford.
Burke’s Robicheaux novels have a greater depth than most crime tales. Burke began his career writing straight fiction, and his early novels, Half of Paradise (1965), To the Bright and Shining Sun (1970), and Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971) deal primarily with the problems of the disenfranchised. His crime novels reflect the same social concerns, with Dave Robicheaux longing to right society’s inequities while feeling helpless to do so.
A Stained White Radiance focuses on Dave’s relationship with the Sonnier family. He has known them all his life, had an affair with Drew when he was in college, and served with Lyle in Vietnam. He finds himself called to the home of their older brother, Weldon, to investigate a gunshot through a window that Weldon seems not to take seriously, claiming that the shooting is an accident. Weldon also insists that the incident has nothing to do with his brother-in-law, Bobby Earl, a right-wing fanatic in New Orleans planning to run for the United States Senate. The mystery is complicated by Weldon’s wife, Bama, having seen a prowler with a disfigured face. Lyle, a faith- healing television evangelist, claims the prowler is their father, supposedly killed in a chemical plant explosion when the Sonniers were children. Lyle shocks and angers Dave by offering to cure Dave’s wife, Bootsie, of lupus, an illness the Robicheaux family has kept secret.
After a passerby reports more prowlers at Weldon’s house, Dave engages in a shoot-out with three thugs, who kill a deputy before he arrives. Weldon, who struggles to keep his independent oil business going and was once employed by the Central Intelligence Agency as a pilot in Southeast Asia, still refuses to explain what is going on. With the help of Clete Purcel, a New Orleans private detective and Dave’s former partner in the police department there, Dave identifies the killers as Jewel Fluck, Eddy Raintree, and Jack Gates. Dave is then offered $2,000, with a promise of more, if he will drop the case. After Clete is badly beaten, Dave is more determined than ever to bring in the killers.
Clete learns that the thugs may be working for New Orleans gangster Joey Gouza. Clete also discovers that former Gouza henchmen are employed by Bobby Earl: “I think we’ve got the ultimate daisy chain of Louisiana buttwipes here—Klansmen, Nazis, and wiseguys.” Dave tracks down Raintree only to find that he had been killed by Fluck to prevent him from talking.
Drew Sonnier is found with her hand nailed to her gazebo. After she claims to have seen Gouza watching the men who did this to her, the mobster is arrested. Because Lyle has just confessed that the brothers have had an incestuous relationship with their sister and that Drew has always loved Weldon, Dave suspects she is lying to protect her beleaguered brother. Gouza has previously warned her, “Tell your brother to pay his debts.” Gouza threatens to take Weldon down with him if he goes to jail for something he has not done.
The miasma begins to clear when Weldon admits to Dave that he has cheated Gouza out of $180,000 by agreeing to deliver a weapons shipment to antigovernment rebels in Colombia, then throwing the arms out of his airplane. Dave finds evidence that Drew nailed herself to the gazebo. After Gouza is released, someone tries to strangle Weldon with piano wire, but Dave realizes that a scarred vagrant calling himself Vic Benson has tried to kill Weldon, and that Vic is really Verise Sonnier.
Gates attempts to buy Dave off with the decapitated head of Fluck, who killed the deputy. Dave refuses, and Gates is killed in an accident while fleeing his pursuer. Dave frames Gouza by hiding Fluck’s head in the trunk of the gangster’s car and having the trunk opened in front of a crowd. All that remains is for Dave to rescue Weldon from being shot by his father at a...