Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Burning Angel by James Lee Burke

Sonny Boy Marsallas, a New Orleans street hustler, entrusts Detective Dave Robicheaux with a mysterious notebook, kicking off a series of violent incidents and raising questions that need answers, and fast... What did Sonny's girlfriend know that got her murdered? Why is Sonny known as Red Angel by Central American guerrillas? And what do the Mafia want with a desolate stretch of New Iberia? This time Sonny Boy may have pushed his luck with the Giacano family one deal too far. A rich, sardonic and terrifying portrayal of contemporary America with a setting which is as charged as an electric storm.

Goodreads description

As I have said before, magic realism is more of a literary approach than a genre and as such you will find it used in all sorts of genres. In this case the genre is mainstream American detective fiction. I've always had a liking for detective fiction and so the idea of a book using magic realism in a detective novel really appealed. I'm not sure what was expecting but it was nothing as good as this. The magic realism fits easily into the genre, it feels entirely natural in the book and fulfills an important role. But I am running ahead of myself. 

The characterization is superb. The book's central figure, Dave Robicheaux, is a complex character. He is haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, having frequent nightmares which merge into the present and future. Several of the other characters are likewise scarred or distorted by wartime experiences. 

The moral ambiguity of war runs through the book. Sonny was involved in Reagan's dirty wars in South America, as was the shadowy organization that is threatening Sonny and possibly Dave himself. Moral ambiguity suffuses the book. Morality is shown to be relative: Dave may not be perfect but there are others who are worse, such as Helen, his police colleague who beats up suspects, or Dave's former colleague, Clete, now private eye, who assists rapists and plants evidence.  Even Clete and Helen are seen to be generally on the right side, compared to the mobsters who tear an innocent woman apart to get information or flay their opponents alive. In such a world even a hustler like Sonny can be seen as a hero, and we understand why Dave will not betray his trust. 

Sonny's hero status is enforced by the magic realism. He has the reputation for being immortal, having survived an attack in South America which killed everyone around him. His pursuers finally catch up with him and he disappears under the waves, bleeding from several bullet wounds, but is he really dead?

Lee Burke's writing style can be lyrical and philosophical as well as gritty, using all three aspects move the story forward: The moon was down, and in the darkness the waving cane looked like a sea of grass on the ocean's floor. In my mind's eye I saw the stubble burning in the late fall, the smoke roiling out of the fire in sulphurous yellow plumes, and I wanted to believe that all those nameless people who may have lain buried in the field - African and West Indian slaves, convicts leased from the penitentiary, Negro laborers whose lives were used up for someone else's profit - would rise with the smoke and force us to acknowledge their humanity.

As can be seen from the above extract, the book puts the action in a wider political and historical context. Set in Louisiana, the bones of slaves and dead native Americans lie beneath the surface, both literally and symbolically, and the consequences of the past play in the present: I've often subscribed to the notion that perhaps history is not sequential; that all people, for all of history, live out their lives simultaneously, in different dimensions perhaps, occupying the same pieces of geography, unseen by one another, as if we were all part of one spiritual conception.  It is a view of history that fits neatly with magic realism and one I identify with. 

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book. Thank goodness Lee Burke is such a prolific writer. I will be back for more.


Renz Sacon said...

Dear Zoe,

I read your review of James Lee Burke book Burning Angel and feel that you did a great job. In my judgment, your review was balanced, fair and well-thought out. You have demonstrated a justified objectivity, giving a reader a clear impression of what to expect from the novel. I will be following your other reviews with interest.


Zoe Brooks said...

Thank you. I do my best.