James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux: A Search for Home

By Pridgen, Allen | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux: A Search for Home


Pridgen, Allen, Southern Quarterly


POPULAR CULTURE SCHOLARS have noted that detective fiction is marked by a distinctly moral vision, usually-in Western literature, of course-a Christian moral vision. The genre examines the capacities for immorality reified in criminal behavior, the suffering this immorality inflicts on individuals and society, and the difficulties social institutions and well-meaning individuals encounter when they try to prevent or control it. John Cawelti, in his Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, argues that crime stories have traditionally presented "religious and moral" themes (54). In twentieth-century American detective fiction, he goes on to say, these themes are frequently developed in stories about detectives whose personal ethos is in conflict with an immoral and corrupt society (59). Edward Margolies in a 1976 essay on American tough guy fiction, maintains that the American detective typically exhibits an ethical code rooted in "eternal Christian principles." He is a man on a "moral... quest" (84-85). Evidence of the continuing scholarly interest in this religious dimension of detective fiction was the 2002 South Atlantic Modern Language Association special session entitled "Divine Mysteries: Faith and Doubt in Detective fiction." The organizers of this session asked for papers that consider W. H. Auden's analysis of detective fiction as a "fantasy" about innocence, love, and the possibility of a return to the Garden of Eden. They also suggested that participants respond to Stanley Hauerwas's assertion that in detective fiction there is a "realistic ... acknowledgment of sin and... reconciliation" (SAMLA News 9).

Some recent critics of James Lee Burke's fiction have pointed out that Burke's twelve novels about Cajun detective David Robicheaux reveal the kind of religious and moral vision characteristic of the genre. Frank Shelton, in his fine essay on Robicheaux's perceptions of the past, explains how troubled Dave is by the political and social injustices recorded in the southern and American histories he has read. Robicheaux also painfully probes into his personal past and finds there the moral failures that cause him now to lie awake at night and agonize over every moral decision. This search of the past leads him, finally, to wonder whether the universal, ongoing immorality of the world and his own moral weakness are explained by the fact of a human "Fall" (238), a radical and devastating pre-historical diminishment of being. Were his teachers right at the Catholic schools he attended when he was a child? Does the Fall in Eden account for the immoral and ignoble self and world they asked him to love? Rob Carney, in a 1996 Southern Quarterly article, feels that such moral questioning by Robicheaux reveals a moralistic and "self-righteous" (126-27) hero who Carney wishes had a bit more of the teeth-gritting machismo of Dave's less introspective friend and colleague Clete Purcel. In an essay more sympathetic with Dave's interior struggles, William and Charlene Clark explore the "religious sensibility" exhibited in the story of David Robicheaux, a sensibility that is, they maintain, "informed by the Catholic church." Burke shares the modern Church's concern for the suffering of the poor and its interest in social justice. He is also, they say, interested in "the drama of individual redemption," a drama played out in a world that is now, more than ever, a place of "systemic and random terror" (65). Because Burke celebrates those redemptive virtues that the Church teaches will finally triumph over evil, he is, the Clarks maintain, an "unmistakably... Christian writer" (68). Burke emphasizes the love, charity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice Dave Robicheaux exemplifies as he tries to defend his community, his family, and himself against the menacing "terror" that threatens them daily.

In his commentary on his thematic purposes, Burke suggests that Dave's story is the archetypal Christian story of the pilgrim who makes his way through a deathfilled, fallen creation in search of signs of redemptive life. …

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