Burning Angel

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

James Lee Burke began an absorbing new direction in his sixth Dave Robicheaux novel, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD. Amid eerily silent electrical storms on the fog enveloped southern Louisiana bayou, Robicheaux encounters long dead Confederate General John Bell Hood, who helps him resolve his personal storms en route to solving a complicated murder case. Burke adeptly pursues a similar direction in BURNING ANGEL.

Sonny Boy Marsallus, an uncommon criminal, was known to help out reformed prostitutes trying to escape the life. He eventually fled New Orleans for South America after the Mob learned he had cut them out of his criminal profits. When Sonny resurfaces in New Orleans, Dave Robicheaux learns that his hard-boiled friend and former partner Clete Purcel fears Sonny, believing him a man whom no one can kill. Nevertheless, during a chance meeting in a New Orleans seafood bar, Dave accepts a confidential notebook from Sonny, who then vanishes out the back window. Later, while investigating the murder of a young woman inside her ravaged house, Dave connects her phone number to one Sonny had left him, and concludes that her killers were looking for Sonny’s notebook.

Further investigation proves puzzling. Wealthy businessman Moleen Bertrand, on whose land have lived several generations of poor black families, inexplicably orders them off the land. Later, the omnipresent Sonny thwarts an attempt on Dave’s life. Bewildered and humiliated, Dave arrests Sonny as a witness to attempted murder. The arrest leads to Sonny’s apparent murder by the unforgiving Mob.

Is Sonny dead? As Dave links Sonny’s notebook to Moleen Bertrand’s vile purposes, an eerie figure matching Sonny’s description emerges to protect Dave and his family. The figure foils an abduction attempt on Alafair, Dave’s unsuspecting daughter. Sonny’s urgent voice over the telephone alerts Dave’s wife Bootsie that Dave is being held at gunpoint by the last remaining suspect in the case, hidden inside their home.

Fans of James Lee Burke will savor familiar Robicheaux elements in BURNING ANGEL: Dave’s stubborn streak of justice, the mutual devotion he shares with Bootsie and Alafair, and his unrelenting torment by ghosts from the Vietnam chapter of his past. When Burke adds his uncanny talent for making the ghosts of the newly dead seem plausible, the result is yet another satisfying read.