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Book review: Hot stuff

Sunset Limited by James Lee Burke Orion, pounds 16.99
Anyone not already familiar with the novels of James Lee Burke should go out and buy one this minute. Sunset Limited is his 17th book, and the ninth featuring the Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. Together, his books amount to the most impressive body of crime fiction in America today. Indeed, many have gone further, and argued that Burke's work is too good to be so categorised - that he writes great fiction, period.

Robicheaux is a complex and intriguing creation. A recovering alcoholic who fought in Vietnam, he roams the bayou country of south-western Louisiana haunted by the shades of civil and foreign wars, racial violence, and a messed-up childhood that left him prone in his earlier days to bouts of drunken self-loathing. We learn more about that childhood in this latest novel. The Sunset Limited is the train to California that his mother once boarded, dreaming of beaches and palm trees as she left her son behind. This abandonment gnaws at his spirit, a freight of personal history in doleful counterpoint to the wider history unearthed in this case - a history as humid and pungent as marsh gas hanging over the wounded characters.

Forty years back, labour leader Jack Flynn was crucified on the wall of a country barn. Now Flynn's children - one a news photographer, the other a movie director - are back in Iberia Parish and they bring with them an enthralling cast of crooked jailers, vicious hitmen, and tragic misfits: Harpo Scruggs, Swede Boxleiter, Cool Breeze Broussard.

Burke is a master storyteller. As always, the terrain is vividly realised: in the smells and colours of the cane fields and bayous, the New Orleans hinterland becomes as much the main character as Robicheaux himself. And, as always, it has more to it than your regular thriller. Things don't tie up neatly in this world where a psychopath like Boxleiter can turn out to be sympathetic. So revenge will go askew, justice will be half-done or not at all, and Robicheaux will go back to his bait shop and boat-hire business carrying his sense of betrayal like a scar.

The writing is rich and direct; the characters simply drawn, so clear that they feel physically present. Fans will be glad to hear that Robicheaux's old partner Clete Purcel is still there, blundering about as cheerful as ever with his sunburn and pork-pie hat. His current partner Helen Soileau is becoming an established figure, too, and turns out pretty handy with a blackjack.

This is one of the joys of a series: the way the good guys come to feel like old friends. I couldn't say which of their stories is my favourite; I'd be torn, perhaps, between Burning Angel and A Morning For Flamingos. The former tells the extraordinary tale of New Orleans street-hustler Sonny Boy Marsallas - how he came to be regarded as a kind of god by Central American guerrillas, and how his nine lives ran out when he went up against the Giacano family. The latter has one of Burke's most melancholy characters, the dope-dealing gangster Tony Cardo. Wired on speed as the hitmen come for him, his marriage disintegrates, and he tries to find a way out so he can care for his disabled son. Robicheaux's relationship with Cardo is a morally gruelling saga worked out against a background of juju magic and wetback exploitation, with a zydeco soundtrack and sauce piquante on the barbecue.

That was the novel which sowed the seed for Sunset Limited, in the image of a union organiser crucified on a barn. Now we learn who crucified Flynn, and the consequences of that grim event in the lives of Flynn's children, and of the men who did it. As one character says, "This area is full of violent people... It lives in the woodwork down here."

Burke's fiction brings this charged territory to life, startling and spectre-laden. Under the purple skies, his stories work themselves out with a remorseless vigour. I cannot recommend them highly enough.