My standards for a mystery novel are a bit lower than my standards for other kinds of fiction, but I have three main requirements:
- It holds my interest.
- Children don’t suffer in it (or at least I don’t have to read about them suffering. If they’ve already suffered before I come in I may be able to handle it.)
- It doesn’t have a pun in the title. (Those are not my thing, sorry.)
James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain fulfilled all of my requirements. I’d been wanting to read some new mystery authors lately, since I’m totally caught up on Michel Connelly and have read so much Ruth Rendell. Many of our library patrons read mysteries, so it’s nice to be able to recommend things and have conversations with them. I’d heard good things about Burke, and the setting (New Orleans and Southern Louisiana) appeals to me.
At first I wasn’t sure I was connecting with the main character, New Orleans police detective Dave Robicheaux. In fact, it took me until page 200 or so to decide if I liked both the character AND the book. Usually I’d have abandoned something that I was so ambivalent about, but the week I was reading this was a particularly bad one for me, and my attention span was shot. I couldn’t have read (or probably enjoyed) anything more literary or complicated. Reading it felt like watching a police procedural show on television, and that suited my mood just fine.
Some words I’d use to describe this book: atmospheric, vivid, violent, gritty, occasionally implausible, occasionally poetic. Burke is a beautiful writer, especially when he’s describing the city or the bayou or Robicheaux’s emotions. Consider this example, from which the book’s title is explained:
…the truth was that I wanted to drink. And I don’t mean I wanted to ease back into it, either, with casual Manhattans sipped at a mahogany and brass-rail bar with red leather booths and rows of gleaming glasses stacked in front of a long wall mirror. I wanted busthead boilermakers of Jack Daniel’s and draft beer, vodka on the rocks, Beam straight up with water on the side, raw tequila that left you breathless and boiling in your own juices. And I wanted it all in a run-down Decatur or Magazine Street saloon where I didn’t have to hold myself accountable for anything and where my gargoyle image in the mirror would simply be another drunken curiosity like the neon-lit rain striking against the window.
We learn early on that Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and a Vietnam veteran, and these two things define and haunt him throughout the book. He’s also a detective in the style of Connelly’s Harry Bosch – someone with a passion to help the wronged, even if it means ruffling the feathers of potentially corrupt fellow law enforcement officers. The plot sets off with Robicheaux digging into the mysterious death of a poor, young, black prostitute in Cataouatche Parish outside of New Orleans. Dave discovered her body in the lake while fishing. The local officials don’t want to do an autopsy and are acting suspicious when he makes inquiries. This sets off a long chain of events that is kind of confusing, honestly, but involves drug lords, arm smugglers, and local mafia guys. Lots of graphic violence ensues.
Robicheaux makes some implausible escapes from death, which stretched credibility a bit, but I rolled with it like I’d go with a plot line from “Magnum P.I.” or another detective show. The one thing that annoyed me the most about the novel was the romantic subplot. Annie, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed social worker who meets Dave when he’s in the middle of a sticky roadside situation with some crooked cops, stretched my belief even more. On their first date, he nearly gets her tortured and killed by some very bad men who are hunting him. I’m sorry, but I’d get as far away from a man with Dave’s proclivity for danger as soon as I could. But this was a relatively minor detraction from a pretty good, otherwise well-written mystery.
I gave it three stars, and I like it enough to want to read the next one in the series to see if it improves. When I give a novel a three-star rating, it means I liked it. Didn’t love it, didn’t dislike it. Mysteries are my literary palate-cleansers, my comfort reading even if they’re dark and a bit disturbing. They don’t have to have soaring prose or powerful ideas. They just have to feel mostly authentic to me, and they have to take my mind off whatever might be going on. This one succeeded on both counts.