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A new cross to bear, another case to solve

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"Crusader's Cross" by James Lee Burke; Simon & Schuster ($25.95)


Dave Robicheaux is a Vietnam vet, an alcoholic mostly dry, a Louisiana cop, a Catholic in agony over his own moral failures, a Cajun tough guy constantly making mistakes and just as constantly searching for redemption.

"Crusader's Cross," the 14th in the Robicheaux series, does not tinker with the melancholy hero or the Louisiana that James Lee Burke has constructed. The poor are dirt poor; the rich are venal; the crimes are horrific; the past is always present.

The book begins with a look back to 1958, the Fourth of July on Galveston Island. Dave and half-brother Jimmie drink too much beer and settle themselves on the third sandbar. The sun is setting, soon the tide will come in, and between them and shore swim two large sharks and many Portuguese men-of-war.

The brothers are rescued by a brave stranger named Ida Durbin, perched on three roped-together inner tubes, a paddle in her hand. Once back to land, "We told ourselves a seascape that could contain predators and the visitation of arbitrary violence upon the unsuspecting no longer held any sway in our lives."

If that doesn't spell out the theme baldly enough, Ida comments, "There's always some folks who need looking after, at least those who haven't figured out sharks live in deep water."

Early on, the plot pivots on whether Ida, a prostitute, has been murdered. Later, her connection to the rich, incestuous and otherwise criminal Chalons family becomes the pivot point.

Ida's role and Ida herself are intriguingly ambiguous. But the Chalons are an over- the-top creation, a House of Usher stereotype pushing into hyperbole the dark realism Burke seeks.

Supposedly, Robicheaux is looking for a serial killer while back at his post at the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department. But Robicheaux is an obsessive man, and Ida and the nasty Chalons are his current obsessions.

"By Friday I was wired to the eyes. ... I didn't care if someone called me white trash or not, but that insult, when it is used in the South, is collective in nature, and Val Chalons had aimed his words at my origins, my mother and father, their illiteracy and poverty and hardship, and I wanted to back him into a corner and break him apart - bone, teeth and joint."

The insights Robicheaux regularly offers are often canceled by his dry-drunk depressions, but the reader forgives, as does engaging friend Clete Purcell, "his porkpie hat cocked at an angle, his stomach hanging over a pair of boxer shorts that were printed with sets of blue dice."

Burke has won a rare two Edgars, awards given by the Mystery Writers of America. "Black Cherry Blues," a Robicheaux book, won in 1990. "Cimarron Rose," first in a series with Montana lawyer Bill Bob Holland, won in 1998.

The recognition and reader loyalty are well earned by Burke's descriptive talents, particularly his evocation of place: "The Gulf was green and black, domed by a sky bursting with stars, so cold in their configurations they seemed to smoke like dry ice. She saw coconuts tumbling out of a wave, and an enormous sea turtle, its shell encrusted with barnacles, bobbing in a swell. A waterspout, its belly swollen with light, wobbled on the southern horizon, sucking thousands of gallons and hundreds of fish out of the waves into the clouds."


(c) 2005, The State (Columbia, S.C.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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