Burke's Law 

Plus, John Dunning's latest whodunit.

Let's get this straight:

Detective Dave Robicheaux of the Iberia Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff's Department is back -- again. He's middle-aged and off Jim Beam, but he's still got a mean streak, and his wife, a former nun, is a saint who's great in the sack. She keeps Robicheaux's mean streak in check, but his blood is boiling. It's summer 2005.

Robicheaux's buddy Dallas Klein, who was gunned down in Florida years ago, has a grown daughter named Trish who's out to avenge her father's death. She's ripping off Gulf Coast casinos owned by Whitey Bruxal, a Miami bookie, who, Trish thinks, had Klein whacked. Bruxal is in business with Bellerophon ("Bello") Lujan, a violent man whose wealth is "ill-gotten." Lujan's son, Tony, is a college kid who had a thing for a girl named Yvonne Darbonne, but then Yvonne got doped up and gang-raped and then she shot herself. (Her father, Cesaire Darbonne, is shell-shocked -- and then some.) But Tony ... he secretly has a crush on his frat brother Slim Bruxal, Whitey's son, until he (Tony) ends up murdered. D.A. Lonnie Marceaux, with an eye on political office (this is the kind of race case that could win him the governorship), thinks Monarch Little, a black drug dealer, killed Tony, but Robicheaux isn't convinced. He's pissed: at FBI agent Betsy Mossbacher, who bosses her way into the investigation of a casino laundering scheme she's sure Bruxal and Lujan are behind (together with a televangelist named Colin Alridge).

Meanwhile: Robicheaux's superior is a lesbian sheriff named Helen Soileau, but she's okay by Robicheaux, who is also investigating the unsolved hit-and-run of a derelict named Crustacean Man (his remains: food for the crawfish in the bayou where his body was dumped). Bello Lujan's wheel-chaired wife may or may not know something about it. Just as she may or may not know something about dead Yvonne Darbonne. And what of superthug Tommy "Lefty" Lee Raguza? According to a psychiatrist's report, "Medical science does not provide an adequate vocabulary to describe a man like this." And what of Clete Purcel, Robicheaux's longtime fellow lawman and onetime drinking partner? He's a drunk. He's also dating Trish Klein.

You got it straight? It's Pegasus Descending (Simon & Schuster), James Lee Burke's latest Robicheaux novel -- his 15th -- and the oaks in Cajun country still stand. The "sweet sewer of Louisiana politics" still stinks. New Orleans, though: It's a changed town. Robicheaux remembers it as "a Petrarchan sonnet rather than an Elizabethan one, its mind-set more like the medieval world, in the best sense." (Say what?) City mobsters in the '70s "were stone killers and corrupt to the core, but they were pragmatists as well as family men [not to mention Petrarchan] and they realized no society remains functional if it doesn't maintain the appearances of morality."

Morality, shmorality. New Orleans, summer 2005, is about to become a real changed town. It's about to get whacked by Katrina.

You, reader, enjoy the fast-paced, preposterous beach read that is Pegasus Descending. Burke knows how to hook his audience. Suspend your disbelief.

-- Leonard Gill

In the mind of John Dunning and his character Cliff Janeway, a crack detective/book dealer, seeing and touching a wonderful, rare, fine-condition book is like sex: "I moved around the room, taking in the obvious high spots: a run of Milne's Pooh books, beginning with the first ... running on and on through the long series, all in dust jackets, oh my pounding heart, the jackets, it made my scrotum tingle just to touch them."

This is from Dunning's new The Bookwoman's Last Fling (Scribner), his fifth Janeway mystery (which began with 1992's Booked To Die). The "Bookman" mysteries revolve around publishing houses, rare books, and the antiquarian-book-dealing market. Dunning's novels are, yes, literate, but their sense of wonder and glee over scarce books in pristine condition makes them accessible to anyone who has ever unreasonably collected, loved, or obsessed over inanimate objects.

In Last Fling, Janeway is hired to catalogue the extensive collection of rare juvenilia owned by an extremely wealthy woman, Candice Geiger. It seems that some of her best books have been stolen and replaced with cheap copies. The catch: Candice died 20 years before.

Most mysteries have as the basis a primary question with a discoverable answer: Whodunit? These mysteries can be very effective, fulfilling the basic human need to know. There's satisfaction in having reached the end of an investigation.

Dunning's mysteries, and in particular The Bookwoman's Last Fling, aren't about closure. His hero, Janeway, admits as much in the pages: "[Closure] is an old word with a modern meaning that I loathe and never use except in sarcasm." Last Fling creates and maintains a fundamental inscrutability because its plot doesn't just turn on the whodunit of the mystery -- though that question is part of the plot. It is more interested in understanding a person, which is ultimately an impossible endeavor.

For Janeway to find out the "who" and "how" to the puzzle, he must try to comprehend the woman at the center of it, Candice Geiger. Even as he discovers answers to the facts of her existence and death, the true nature of and motivations for her decades-old actions remain out of reach. It is inherently impossible to ever know another person to a satisfying degree. Dunning's recognition of this truth elevates a standard mystery into an astute musing on human folly.

-- Greg Akers

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