Dave Robicheaux and the Meaning of Life

I have always loved to read. Since I was a little girl, reading has been a favorite pastime, for both learning and enjoyment. I read everything that came my way from the Wheaties box on the breakfast table, to the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew mysteries - over and over again.

So I guess it's no surprise that I still enjoy a good mystery, from gritty police procedurals to creepy who-done-its of all types.  I also really love to travel, and read about places I have enjoyed or places I would still like to enjoy. Combining the two seems like the best of everything.

I recently finished another of the Dave Robicheaux series by my favorite author, James Lee Burke. This one, The Glass Rainbow, is number 18 in the Dave series, mostly set in the New Iberia Cajun country of Louisiana. Burke has created a great character in Dave, a sheriff's deputy who is flawed and troubled, sometimes a victim and sometimes a perpetrator, but always very complex, thought-provoking, and genuine. He creates other characters who are always just as complex as Dave, including his usual sidekick and former New Orleans police department partner, Clete Pucell.

But the character that stands out most in these books is the Cajun country itself. And yes, it definitely is a character. The story would not be the same if it were set anywhere else. The descriptions of the bayous, the small towns, thunderstorms, wildlife and the distinctive accents of the Cajun people, are so evocative that I become completely enthralled. This version of Louisiana may not really exist any more, if it ever did, but for the time it takes me to read the book, I am there, it is real, and Dave and his complexities offer me much food for thought.

The other writer who does this for me is Donna Leon, with her Inspector Guido Brunetti novels, set in Venice. Again, Venice is as much a character as Brunetti, his family and his  co-workers. I like to read these books not only as a type of travelogue, but also because of Brunetti's complexities and the complexities of life in Venice. When I'm reading a Brunetti, I think like a Venetian.

But, in my viewpoint, it's James Lee Burke who is the master of this type of fiction. When the setting also becomes a character, it only adds to my enjoyment of the plot. This weaving of plot, setting, and characters is so masterful that I hoard these books for when I have the time to luxuriate in their fullness.  This is not the kind of paperback you want to take on an airplane. This is genius: it always demands my full attention and always rewards me with insights into the nature of good and evil, and the human predicament.

Most popular literature these days is what a friend of mine calls "mind candy". It keeps you entertained, hopefully, and is long on plot and short on characters. There isn't much to ponder in these books. If you've read one, you've read them all. But if you're looking for something more challenging that will stay with you for days after you finish it, look for Detective Dave Robicheaux. I hope Dave's struggles with amoral villains, disinterested bystanders, and his own soul will challenge you like they challenge me.

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