Trouble comes calling on the Louisiana bayou parish where James Lee Burke sets his idiosyncratic regional novels. In THE NEW IBERIA BLUES (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), a condemned murderer named Hugo Tillinger has pulled off a daring escape from a Texas prison and is now hiding somewhere in his old neighborhood. Another recent arrival, the Hollywood director Desmond Cormier, has returned to his humble native roots to make a movie, installing himself and his entourage in a swell house with a spectacular view of the bay. From that vantage, Dave Robicheaux, the broody sheriff’s deputy who has stamped his forceful personality on this series, lays eyes on yet another visitor — a woman nailed to a large wooden cross that washes up from the bay.
The dead woman, the daughter of a local minister, volunteered for the Innocence Project and was working to free Tillinger from prison. But while there seems to have been a real connection between the minister’s daughter and the escaped prisoner, Burke must exert himself to fit those Hollywood types into his brutal byzantine plot. (I stopped counting after the 10th violent death.)
But does anyone really read Burke expecting a coherent narrative? We’re hanging on for Robicheaux’s pensées, like his meditation on the living spirits of the dead: “I don’t believe that time is sequential. I believe the world belongs to the dead as well as the unborn.” We’re keeping an eye out for vivid characters like Bella Delahoussaye, a blues singer with intimate knowledge of Big Mama Thornton’s mournful “Ball and Chain.” Maybe most of all, we’re waiting for those angry outbursts when Robicheaux lets it rip: “I don’t think you get it,” he tells one of the movie people. “Louisiana is America’s answer to Guatemala. Our legal system is a joke. Our legislature is a mental asylum. How’d you like to spend a few days in our parish prison?” Only if there’s a new James Lee Burke novel in the cell.
“There was esoteric knowledge involved in being a burglar,” Thomas Perry advises us in THE BURGLAR (Mysterious Press, $26). It takes considerable expertise to select the right house, break in without waking the dog and recognize what’s worth stealing. Elle Stowell has been at this profession since she was 15, but this petite, lithe young pro isn’t prepared to find three people — all naked and shot between the eyes — piled in a heap on the king-size bed in the master suite of the house in Bel-Air she’s broken into.
The protagonists of Perry’s ingenious thrillers are usually skilled at devising schemes for getting out of awkward situations. Elle uses her wits to break into tight spots, like the headquarters of the shady security firm hunting her down for involving herself in the triple homicide. Elle performs tricky feats here, but her pièces de résistance are the elaborate strategies she engineers to break into that company’s control center. If Perry is the king of obsessive strategists (and I so declare him), Elle is his pinup model.
The thing is, Serge A. Storms is nuts; nonetheless, that doesn’t stop Tim Dorsey’s psycho hero from doing great deeds. While gripped in his never-ending quest to write an oral history of his beloved Florida, Serge manages to violently dispatch profiteers who menace the innocent and unwary. NO SUNSCREEN FOR THE DEAD (Morrow/HarperCollins, $26.99) finds Serge on a mission to rescue retirees from the hucksters who prey on them. “They have absolutely no soul,” he rages, after viewing one gullible couple’s junk-filled home. “They will sell and sell and sell until you either lose your house or call the cops.” With Coleman, his perpetually stoned companion at his side, Serge storms into Boca Shores, a retirement community of nice people who need his help. After snuffing out an abusive caretaker, he’s honored with a raucous pool party, a tribute he repays by treating everyone to a rollicking road trip we’d love to sign up for.
August Octavio Snow is a big Detroit booster. In LIVES LAID AWAY (Soho Crime, $26.95), Stephen Mack Jones picks up his gung-ho protagonist where the author left him in his first novel, “August Snow” — cleaning up his beat-up neighborhood in Mexicantown. Using the millions awarded from his successful case against the Police Department, this ex-cop has already rescued his childhood home and is now renovating the other houses on his street. Snow thinks his old job is safely behind him — until a girl in a Marie Antoinette costume is tossed off the Ambassador Bridge.
The victim is 19-year-old Isadora (Izzy) Rosalita del Torres, an undocumented worker who went missing in a government raid, and her battered body indicates she was being exploited by sex traffickers. Snow swings into action-hero mode and recruits a posse of friends and neighbors for a vigilante mission that dovetails with his crusade against ICE raids. Seeing Detroit through Snow’s adoring eyes is sweet. But except for the bad guys, who go out in a blazing gun battle, the characters are too good to be true, from Snow’s sainted godmother and a priest who operates an underground railroad to Snow himself, who could use a few flaws to make him human.