The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke’s introduction of Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux to crime fiction readers is even better than I remembered it to be. It has been more than twenty years since I first read this first one, but Dave Robicheaux books have been a regular part of my reading life ever since that first exposure to Dave’s world. There are now nineteen books in the series (I hope Burke is hard at work on number twenty), and I have read all but the latest of them almost as soon as they were published. I was immediately and permanently hooked, and now I remember why.
The plot of The Neon Rain is rather straightforward: a New Orleans detective learns from a death row inmate that someone has placed a contract on his life and starts nosing around to see if there is anything to the rumor. In the process of trying to pin names and motives to the potential hit, our detective inadvertently makes some powerful people – on both sides of the law – very nervous. Lt. Robicheaux, it seems, has almost as many enemies within the New Orleans P.D. as he does outside it. He also has a huge drinking problem and a strong commitment to making the bad guys pay for their crimes, both of which are about to make his life hell.
The real strength of the Dave Robicheaux series is Burke’s talent for creating characters his readers want to know more about. They are not always likeable, but they are always interesting. Even some of the characters we do like, especially Robicheaux and his longtime partner Clete Purcell, are flawed almost beyond redemption. But amidst all the chaos and ugliness, Dave Robicheaux creates a family, stays in love with his wife, raises the little girl he plucked from the bottom of a lake, and tries to keep his best friend from self-destructing. Oh, and along the way, he solves a lot of brutal murders, puts a bunch of bad guys away (sometimes without witnesses), and looks out for a whole lot of people who are not capable of doing it for themselves. If ever Southwestern Louisiana had a white knight, his name was Dave Robicheaux.
The Neon Rain tells us that Dave is a Vietnam veteran still plagued with bad dreams and other symptoms of PTSS, that he has a fifteen-month younger half-brother who makes his living just over the edge of what is legal, that he went to college in Lafayette (home of the Raging Cajuns), that he is always one drink away from his next bender, and that his wife left him for a Houston oilman. But this imperfect life is only the point that readers climb on to Dave’s story, an introduction to a character whose life will be a series of extraordinary peaks and valleys for another twenty books are so. And, as Dave closes the book on his career with the New Orleans cops, we are going to be lucky enough to go along for the ride.