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Onyx reviews: Jolie Blon's Bounce by James Lee Burke

With age, some wines grow mellow and smooth. Others become hard and bitter. So, too, some series protagonists. Dave Robicheaux falls in the latter category. Over the years he has become more cynical, more insular and more tormented by personal demons. Even so, he's a devoted father, a husband who sometimes becomes too wrapped up in his own issues to allow his partner emotional access, and a man with an unwavering view of what's right.

In Jolie Blon's Bounce, Dave encounters evil of Biblical proportion: a man called Legion Guidry. Guidry, who borrows his name from a New Testament demon, was a violent sugarcane plantation overseer who hasn't lost any of his edge as he's aged.

On the face of it, the book is about a pair of murders related only by their supposed perpetrator, Tee Bobby Hulin, a black musician whose song gives the book its title. A young couple is attacked in a field. The man is restrained while his girlfriend is brutally raped and left dead, tied to a tree. The second victim is a drugged-out prostitute who happens to be the daughter of Joe Zeroski, one of the local mafia bigwigs. In both cases, Hulin is the obvious suspect but Dave doesn't believe the drug-addict troublemaker fits the profile for this kind of brutal crime. Other investigators disagree, as does Zeroski, who's intent on taking the law into his own hands.

The victims are a study in contrast—a pious, innocent young woman and another who has descended into the gutters. Even so, their importance to the story seems to be as vehicles to lead Dave into a series of confrontations with Legion Guidry and a strangely eerie traveling bible salesman named Marvin Oates, who offends Dave early on by ogling his teenage daughter, Alafair.

The 75-year-old Guidry beats Dave badly in their first serious encounter—Dave seems overwhelmed by the man and offers little defense. Guidry adds humiliation to the beating with a lurid kiss that haunts Dave. His injuries thrust him back into his personal battle against alcohol and painkillers. Dave's reliable buddy Clete Purcel, even more of a renegade than Dave, keeps things stirred up with his on-going series of woman problems and freewheeling vigilante approach to the law.

Solving the case becomes incidental and, when Dave finally puts the obvious clues together, it seems like he's been procrastinating. He's at odds with everyone—his domestic partner, his boss at the New Iberia police station, even the families of the murder victims and, occasionally, Purcel.

If there's a literary stylist in noir fiction, it's Burke. He immerses his stories in local color with language so rich it assails the senses. Characters are deftly and insightfully drawn, each with his own issues and demons.

Louisiana is Burke's turf and Robicheaux is about as tormented as protagonists come. Burke doesn't shrink from the metaphysical aspects of our world, either. He entertains the notion that some people personify evil and ghosts from the past can speak to us in the present.

It's gritty stuff. The depths of the gloom make Louisiana seem like a third-world country. (Purcel calls it Guatemala North). But there's also a glimmer of hopefulness. Dave meets a homeless vet who claims they knew each other in Vietnam. The vet may well have saved Dave's life, but he's a hazy character. Perhaps one of the shades that Dave frequently encounters in his life, a hint of good to counter the otherwise relentless evil he faces daily.

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