lowlife: A Stained White Radiance by James Lee Burke

How can you resist a writer who describes a vicious criminal like this: “Eddy Raintree’s photo stared at me out of his file with a face that had the moral depth and complexity of freshly poured cement.” Or who writes about “the redneck, coonass, peckerwood South,” referring to its inhabitants in this way: “Each morning they got up with their loss, their knowledge of who they were, and went to war with the rest of the world.”

Are you getting the impression that James Lee Burke is an atypical thriller writer? Truth to tell, the man writes so well that, even if his novels weren’t so brilliantly plotted, I’d be tempted to read them just for the stellar prose. And A Stained White Radiance, the fifth book in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, reflects the same writerly attention to atmosphere and character development that I found in the first four.

A Stained White Radiance (Dave Robicheaux #5) by James Lee Burke (1992) 394 pages ★★★★★ 

A Stained White Radiance — the title is taken from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — is a story about Klansmen, Nazis, and Mafia wiseguys. Years ago, Robicheaux served as a lieutenant in the Marines in Vietnam and as a police officer in the New Orleans Police Department. He’s past the half-century mark now and works as a deputy sheriff in rural New Iberia Parish, running a bait-tackle-and-lunch spot on the bayou on the side. Robicheaux is a fascinating character: tough, shrewd, relentless, with a powerful moral compass.

Naturally, since these are books about crime and criminals, Robicheaux finds himself mixed up in extremely dangerous investigations. His cases invariably end up involving his former partner in the NOPD, Cletus Purcell, and complicate the life he lives with his wife (the second wife in the series) and young adopted Salvadoran daughter. Previous entries in the series embroiled him in cases involving the CIA, the DEA, and the New Orleans Mob. In A Stained White Radiance, the crime at the center of the investigation brings in the Mob (again), an American Nazi politician who is a David Duke lookalike, and an assortment of odious lowlife killers, wifebeaters, and other miscreants. The story is complex and brims over with suspense. I can’t wait for #6 in the series.

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