Over the past year or so, I’ve gotten into reading a lot of crime fiction. I wrote about this a while back, in my post about transitioning from Nancy Drew to Lucas Davenport. Since then, I’ve started reading detective novels by James Lee Burke, featuring the protagonist Detective Dave Robicheaux, who lives in New Iberia, Louisiana. He could hardly be more different from Lucas Davenport, who is John Sandford’s star character in the Prey series. For starters, the books are set in very different landscapes. Robicheaux lives in the South, where he is steeped in past and extant racism (he’s white), the legacy of the Civil War, and the frequent wailings of nutrias on the swamp. Davenport lives in the Twin Cities, and although he sometimes rides over to Wisconsin or ventures into Greater Minnesota, his base is the seedy side of Minneapolis. Let’s just say that Robicheaux could never engage in a manhunt on snowmobile.
Aside from the setting of the books, the tone is much different. Sandford has a straightforward, omniscient narrator perspective. He observes the dark twists of the human psyche, and his books are sometimes genuinely scary. Burke, however, is more lyrical and introspective. He writes in the first-person, which sometimes forces him to contrive scenarios wherein a participant in a scene must recount the story to Robicheaux. But this is more than compensated for by Robicheaux’s haunted memories and unique perspective. There is much more meditation on surroundings and history in the Robicheaux books than in the Prey novels, which are built for speed.
What kept me going back to the Sandford novels was the Davenport character, who is smart, lucky, tenacious, violent, and empathetic. But in contrast to Robicheaux, Davenport seems more like James Bond. He drives a Porsche, gets lucky with the ladies, has handsome looks, and he always gets the bad guy. Robicheaux, on the other hand, is a man with no shortage of terrible childhood or young adulthood memories (which variously pop up in each book to provide an undercurrent to the story line). He’s a recovering alcoholic who served in Vietnam, and he has a latent rage problem that invariably gets stoked into action in each book. Robicheaux is violent, and not just with a gun; he’s more likely to fly into a rage and beat a con man or mobster into a pulp. As the sheriff in his department accurately observes, he has a problem following the authority that he, as a policeman, expects others to heed. Yet Robicheaux has a tender side as well, most notably regarding his family. Like Davenport, he has an adoptive daughter, although Alafair features much more prominently than do any of Davenport’s children, except in Naked Prey and Wicked Prey.
Davenport is rarely a frustrating character; he’s engaging, funny, and profane. Robicheaux, however, can’t keep himself out of trouble. Thus, in book after book, I find myself wondering if he’ll ever be able to learn and hold back from taunting and beating up bad guys. I suppose such a book would have to get its conflict from other places, but James Lee Burke does not lack for inventive plots or even for the occasional leap into magical realism.
I guess if I had to characterize the two series, I would say that Sandford’s books are purely commercial, but generally satisfying, whereas Burke’s books have a more literary bent, though I’m sure they pull in their fair share of reader dollars. Once you find a character (or two) like these, it’s hard not to go back for more.