Book Review: A Morning for Flamingos, by James Lee Burke

A Morning for Flamingos, by James Lee Burke. Harper Mystery paperback. 1990. $9. (#4 0f 19 in the Dave Robicheaux series)

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few days. I’m debating of starting a giveaway. JLB has become one of my favorite authors of fiction, not simply crime fiction, but fiction, in general. If you’re reading my posts, you know I review JLB with frequency. JLB’s writing somehow makes the gritty, ugly, simple, day-to-day life of coastal Louisiana delicious. James is like the Bobby Flay of the crime novel. He can take the worst people, the worst environment, the moral decay and decrepitude and fashion an amazing tale leaving me ready for another course of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel.

Out of respect to Mr. Burke’s craft, I’m contemplating beginning a “Burke of the Month” contest. Or, perhaps a “Crime of the Month” contest. There are several authors I read whose writing is brilliant and whose characters I am really drawn to. Another author I might involve is Sara Paretsky, who writes about V.I. Warshawski. The authors write about characters who lack self-indulgent soliloquies. Not that Robicheaux or Warshawski don’t engage in some soliloquies but for reasons I haven’t come to terms with I don’t find them irritating. I not going to bash other writers, I just won’t promote them as much. I find Burke’s exploration of base forms of human nature captivating, human frailty, weakness, psychic damage wrought upon people by others keeps me reading his books. Burke’s book aren’t procedural crime; the bayous, lagoons, and backwater estuaries of coastal Louisiana, of Bayou Teche don’t lend themselves well to textbook solutions. Lives are complicated, and every character in Burke’s books are complicated people.

So, to encourage people to give Burke, Paretsky, maybe a couple of others a try, I’m thinking about giving away a book or two per month. Watch for details.

Reading the Dave Robicheaux series in order is not necessary. I hope not; I think I began with either “Jolie Blon’s Bounce” (#11) or “Last Car to Elysian Fields” (#13). The first Robicheaux novel was published in 1987. “A Morning for Flamingos” was published in 1990. The newest Robicheaux novel, “Light of the World,” was published in 2013. If my maths are decent, Robicheaux has been around for about 26 years. Reading the books out of sequence leads to some confusion about Dave’s personal life. Dave has a few wives; he loses one to divorce, loses one to illness, and gains one later in the series. Dave also has an adopted daughter, Alafair, who grows up as the series progresses. Readers get to see how Dave’s attitude changes with each wife, how his law enforcement life interferes with, sometimes rules, consistently complicates his personal life. Another nice aspect of the series is watching how Dave’s relationship with Alafair changes as she matures. I’m currently reading, “The Glass Rainbow” (2010), and not to get ahead but Burke refrains from giving into the societal tropes of concerned, irrational parents and irrational, emotional young people. Instead of simply writing cookie-cutter dialogue and situations like many other authors, Burke’s portrayals of Dave and Alafair are thoughtful, respectful, concerned. Each acts in what I consider rational ways, though Dave is an occasional hot-head and is not opposed to mashing someone’s grits, especially where his wife or daughter are concerned.

In “A Morning for Flamingos,” Dave is nearly killed. No spoiler here; his partner is killed and he is left for dead in the first three pages of the novel. The killer was being transported by Robicheaux and his partner to a state facility for nothing less than execution. A little more than an hour later, the killer is loose, Dave’s partner is dead, and Dave was left for dead behind a gas station.

Cajun Boudin (“boo-dan”)

Dave recovers from his wounds over three months or so, and Dave is back in action with the Iberia Sheriff’s Office. Not long after returning to duty, though, Dave is approached by a special investigator working with the Presidential Task Force on Drugs. Dave, we’d like for you to go undercover. “We want to put you inside the mob. You’re the perfect guy. You resign from the department; we set you up in New Orleans, give you a lot of money to flash around to the lowlifes.” New Orleans has a new and big bad player in the drug community, and the task force wants him like a starving man wants a nice hot plate of cajun boudin.

I mentioned earlier Burke’s characters are complicated. Even his villains are complicated. The new drug kingpin, Anthony Cardo, aka “Tony C” and “Tony the Cutter” is a complicated fellow, and not simply because he has operations in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. No, he has an interesting family – and that’s all I will say. To say anything more would be a spoiler.

Dave becomes a reticent and wary player in the drug community in New Orleans. He has to place his adopted daughter, Alafair, with friends. Along the way he becomes re-acquainted with an old girlfriend. His best friend, Clete, runs amok, solving simple dilemmas by punching them in the face. And, while trying to handle his undercover operations he discovers the piece of human excrement who killed his partner and nearly killed him has returned to New Orleans.

Life is never simple, quiet, or mellow for Robicheaux. His conscious is tormented by visions of horrifying details of time spent in Vietnam. Dave suffers flashbacks, night sweats, and night terrors, the circumstances of his daily routine unleash dreams reminding him of death, sadness, and regret. Ghosts of his past follow him – not literally, but he sees human interaction through a lens of violence, mistrust, and deceit, and tries to buffer his loved ones from detritus of the discarded filth of humanity.

Shrimp Etouffee

Burke’s story-telling is like a rich, tantalizing shrimp etouffee. Large flavorful characters sauteed in a spicy roux of drugs, sex, guns, and teeth-crunching knuckles. Walk down St. Ann, or wander through Jackson Square, or pick your way down Bourbon Street. Visitors will be simultaneously lured by aromas of crabs being boiled, of sweet oily beignets being fried at Cafe du Monde; and repelled by fetor of urine, booze, despair, and bad choices. Burke’s writing makes me want to visit New Orleans more than I do. New Orleans is like a microcosm of global humanity sitting on the cusp of Life and Death, the literally collision of the Mighty Mississippi River, Big Oil, and Mother Nature’s hurricane tantrums.

Burke weaves history and geography effortlessly into his prose. “Later, she worked in a laundry and did housework for twenty dollars and week, which was the standard full-time salary for any Negro in South Louisiana, wherever he or she worked, well into the 1960s.” (4)

The oil industry is never far removed from any of Burke’s stories. Sometimes, evidence is as simple as a boat. “It was called a jugboat because it had been used by a marine seismograph company to lay out and recover the long rubber-coated  cables and instruments, or “jugs,” that recorded the vibrations off the substrata after an explosion was detonated in the drill hole.” (51)

Burke’s book elevate crime fiction to a new level. A reader may not learn about the scientific names for body parts, for bones, or about certain aspects of decomposition. It’s not like Burke leaves these elements out; readers will find these details. They are more anecdotal; they don’t fuel the inevitable impact of Dave and Clete with the true villains of the book, never become focus. Fighting against amoral people and dealing with his internal demons consume Dave’s time.

Here is a link to Amazon should my review be enticing enough for you to consider Burke’s book.

Thanks for reading. And keep an eye out for an announcement concerning some free books.

PAX

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