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Onyx reviews: Light of the World by James Lee Burke

After the stress of their recent adventures (documented in Creole Belle), Dave Robicheaux, his wife Molly and daughter Alafair, and Cletus Purcell and his recently discovered daughter Gretchen Horowitz are on a well-deserved holiday in Montana, about as far off the grid as is humanly possible these days. Cell phone coverage is spotty at best, a factor that plays into the plot of Light of the World, the twentieth novel to feature these characters, several times.

Gretchen, Clete's daughter with a prostitute, was abused as a child and grew up to be a contract killer for the Mafia. Now she's working on a documentary about the ecological hazards of shale oil exploration, which attracts unwanted attention from some powerful people. 

As far as this vacation spot takes Dave and Clete from Louisiana, they keep running into murderers and sociopaths. Shortly after they arrive in Big Sky country, an arrow narrowly misses Alafair while she's out for a morning walk. It might have been an accident, but no one will admit to the shooting and Alafair senses that it was meant to kill or wound her. A mysterious cave covered in Bible quotes that Dave finds on the property indicates the presence of a disturbed mind. While investigating the disappearance and eventual murder of the adopted daughter of a wealthy businessman, Dave and Cletus encounter Wyatt Dixon (a character from Burke's Holland series), a former rodeo clown who has all the hallmarks of a psychopath, except he appears to be a sympathetic, perhaps even misunderstood, man in this setting. 

Then there is the situational sociopathy of the rich man who owns everything (and, it seems, everyone) in the community. The patriarch of the Younger clan operates so far outside the rules of normal society that he becomes indifferent to them, and his contempt is both hereditary and contagious among those who work for him, including some local cops who believe they can act as they want without reprisal.

Finally, there is the Big Bad, Asa Surette, a serial killer thought to have died in a prison bus accident years ago. Alafair, a lawyer and a novelist (as is Burke's real-life daughter Alafair), poked the monster with a stick when she interviewed him for a book she wanted to write about him. Dave had warned her that meeting Surette—even in the relative safety of a prison—was a bad idea, but she ignored his advice. She was so repulsed by Surette that she abandoned the book and started investigating other crimes for which he might have been responsible. He was convicted of murder in Kansas at a time when there was no death penalty, but she makes it her mission to see that he is found guilty of other crimes that can get him the death sentence. His apparent demise ended her mission, but Surette remembers her vendetta. He's another of Burke's capital-E Evil characters, a man so steeped in malevolence that he literally reeks. Dave has encountered a few others like him in the past, so he recognizes them when he sees them.

Alafair is the first to suspect that the murders are Surette's work and are part of a bigger plan, though she has a hard time convincing anyone—including her father—that the man had survived the accident and ensuing fire in which he was supposed to have died. Once Dave accepts his daughter's claims and starts listening to his own intuition, he and Clete can't get anyone else to take them seriously. Officials find (and readers might do the same) Surette's presence in Montana somewhat incredible and coincidental. The local sheriff is fixated on Dixon as the culprit. Clete and Dave also have to worry about Gretchen, who was sexually assaulted by a cop and is likely to seek revenge, as well as Clete's questionable choice in women, which puts him at odds with some important people. Dave and Clete have no official law enforcement standing in Montana, but that doesn't stop them from acting the same way they do back in Iberia Parish.

As Dave ages, the ghosts of the past seem more prevalent in his life. The books have always had an element of mysticism, though they are minimized in this entry to a series of inexplicable but symbolic appearances by wolves. Burke believes that the dead are always present. Dave's ghosts include people he killed in the past, both as an officer of the law and in Vietnam, and those he's lost, including his previous wives and lovers. He is an alcoholic—mostly but not entirely on the wagon, and he doesn't always care whether certain options are legal or not. He's a wild west gunslinger, trusting in a moral code instead of the law. 

As the cast of characters in the series expands, the focus shifts away from Dave for longer and longer times. For the first third of Light of the World, he operates more as an observer than a participant as Burke follows Alafair, Gretchen and even Wyatt Dixon. Once the crisis hits full speed, after a perhaps too-long build-up, Dave and Clete turn into quasi-invincible instruments of justice. At some point Burke is going to have to confront the mortality of these two men, but he obviously isn't ready to do so yet.

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