Monday, August 23, 2010

In The Spotlight: James Lee Burke's A Morning For Flamingos

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Well-written crime fiction gives the reader a sense of place and character, so I was pleased at fellow crime fiction author John Lindermuth’s suggestion that I put James Lee Burke’s
A Morning For Flamingos in the spotlight. Thanks, John! Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series is a clear example of a set of novels that give the reader a real sense of place, so let’s take a closer look at A Morning For Flamingos.

Robicheaux has recently returned to the New Iberia, Louisiana Police Department. He and his partner, Lester Benoit, have been assigned to transport two convicted criminals to the Angola state penitentiary. One of those prisoners is Tee Beau Latiolais; the other is Jimmie Lee Boggs. Both have been convicted of murder and are being sent to Angola’s Death Row. While Robicheaux, Benoit and the prisoners are en route, Boggs manages to escape, killing Benoit and leaving Robicheaux for dead. Robicheaux survives, largely thanks to Tee Beau, and takes some leave from the police department to heal from his wounds. During his convalescence, Robicheaux spends some time with an old friend, former DEA agent Minos Dautrieve. Dautrieve’s been assigned to the Presidential Task Force on Drugs, and soon tries to persuade Robicheaux to take part in a “sting” operation against New Orleans drug dealer and crime boss Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux’s unwilling. He has no interest in the politics of the “drug war,” nor in getting involved in what could be a lethal operation. However, he soon finds out that Tee Beau Latiolais may not be guilty of the murder of which he’s been convicted, and that Boggs probably knows the truth about that killing. He also finds out that Boggs may be in New Orleans and may be mixed up with Cardo. So when Dautrieve suggests that the “sting” operation would be a good chance to even the score with Boggs, Robicheaux reluctantly agrees. He soon makes contact with Cardo and is accepted as a “dirty cop."

What’s supposed to be a straightforward “sting” operation soon turns out to be much more complicated. First it becomes apparent than an insider is leaking information on the movements of Cardo’s people. This gets the local New Orleans police involved. It also puts several of Cardo’s people at risk. Robicheaux, too, is in grave danger. Second, and even more of a complication, the more time Robicheaux spends with Cardo, the less convinced he is that Cardo is the heartless thug and assassin he’s made out to be. He and Cardo have some things in common, and that plus what Robicheaux learns about Cardo’s home life make him question the entire operation. As if that weren’t enough, one of the people possibly involved in the New Orleans criminal world is Bootsie Giacano, an old love of Robicheaux’s, for whom he still has feelings. The tension builds as all sides in this drug war gear up. Meanwhile, Robicheaux, caught in the middle, tries to walk a proverbial tightrope between his sense of kinship with Cardo, his obligation to Dautrieve and the Commission, and his obligation to clear Tee Beau Latiolais’ name if he can.

One of the strongest elements in this novel is the sense of place. Robicheaux’s world is Louisiana, and the reader gets that sense in many ways. For instance, there are many descriptions of the scenery. For instance, here’s one scene:

“The days were cool and warm at the same time, the way they always are during the fall in southern Louisiana, and I liked to put on a pair of khakis, a soft flannel shirt, and my loafers, and sit on the gallery and watch the gold light in my pecan trees, the hard blue ceramic texture of the sky above the marsh, the red leaves floating like rose petals on the bayou, the fishermen on my dock shaking sacks of cracked ice on their catches of sac-รก-lait and big-mouth bass.”

It’s not just the physical descriptions, either, that give the reader this sense of place. Dialogue is also a very important part of what gives this book the “feel” of Louisiana. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a conversation between Robicheaux and Tee Beau’s grandmother, Tante Lemon:

"Mr. Dave," she said again. Her voice was low, as though she were speaking in church.

"I can't help, Tante Lemon," I said.

"He was at my little house. He didn't kill no redbone," she said.

"Somebody's going to take her home," the jailer said.

"I told all them people, Mr. Dave. They ain't listen to me. What for they gonna listen an old nigger woman worked Miz Hattie's crib? That's what they say. Old nigger putain lyin' for Tee Beau."

Even the characters’ names remind one of where one is in this novel.

Besides the strong sense of place, another element that runs through A Morning for Flamingos is the characterization. Most of the characters are complex and multi-dimensional. That’s particularly true of Dave Robicheaux. He’s haunted by his memories of Viet Nam, he’s conflicted about Tony Cardo, and overall, he’s a complicated person. At a deep level, he’s a decent human being who tries to do the right thing. That’s why he tries to clear Tee Beau’s name when he discovers the young man may be innocent. It’s also why he reluctantly agrees to take part in the “sting” operation. But it’s also why he feels a bond of sympathy with Cardo, particularly after he finds out some things about Cardo’s personal life. There’s also the complicated relationship that Robicheaux has with his daughter Alafair. He loves her very much and wants to keep her out of danger. Yet he agrees to the “sting” operation which will separate the two, at least for a time.

The other major characters are also complex. For example, Tony Cardo is a crime boss and a local drug kingpin. He’s wanted by more than one government agency as well as by some very unpleasant people in other cities who want to take over his businesses. And yet, the better we get to know him, the less like a stereotypical thug he seems. Yes, he’s involved in several illegal activities. However, there’s much more to him than that. The same is true of Bootsie Giacano. As young people, she and Robicheaux were very much in love. For a complex set of reasons, he pushed her away. Now, as this case draws them back together, we see that she’s much more than the jilted former lover who’s married into a crime family. The more we learn about her, the more depths she has. There are other characters, too, who are more complex than they seem at first. In fact, very few of the characters in this novel are “cookie-cutter” characters. Because of that aspect of this novel, it’s sometimes quite hard to say who the “bad guys” and the “good guys” really are.

Tension is also a major element in this novel. It builds within characters, such as the inner tension Robicheaux feels as he tries to decide whether to be involved in this “sting.” There’s also tension between different groups that play roles in the novel. For instance, there’s conflict between the DEA and the New Orleans police. There’s conflict between them and Cardo’s people, and between Cardo’s people and other underworld leaders. And of course, there’s the ongoing conflict between Robicheaux and Jimmie Lee Boggs

Finally, Burke’s almost lyrical writing style runs throughout this novel. Here’s just a snippet:

I pushed on the trapdoor, which was made of steel and overlaid with concrete and swung up and down on thick black springs, and walked up the steps into the balmy November afternoon. The moss-hung oaks by the back wall were loud with blue jays and mockingbirds. I looked back down into the shelter and saw Tony still seated on the side of the bunk, his face pointed downward, the skin of his back as tight as a lampshade, bright with sweat.”

Burke’s writing style, the strong sense of place and complex characterization, and the thread of tension that runs through the novel all give A Morning For Flamingos a unique flavour. But what do you think? Have you read A Morning For Flamingos? If you have, what elements in it struck you?

Coming Up on In The Spotlight:

Monday 30 August/Tuesday 31 August - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith

Monday 6 September/Tuesday 7 September - The Breaker - Minette Walters

Monday 13 September/Tuesday 14 September - The Daughters of Cain - Colin Dexter


  1. Not much I can say about it having not read it yet, but it just go right into my wish list. Terrific review Margot. I really wish to read it.

  2. I must re read this one as I remember buying A Morning for Flamingos and Black Cherry Blues in a book shop on our first day when holidaying in Virginia back in 1995. It felt like Louisiana to those of us not used to the humidity. Great review Margot.

  3. Jose Ignacio - Thank you for your kind words. I hope you will enjoy the book; I think it really shows some of Burke's writing skills quite well, and we get to learn some background on Robicheaux.

  4. Norman - Thank you : ). This book is definitely vintage Burke, or I think so, anyway. And trust me, humidity is a part of life - almost a character all its own - all over the South, and in other parts of the U.S.

  5. Flamingos was my introduction to Burke and it has never lost its charm after several reads (due for another soon).
    The man is definitely among our best.

  6. John - Burke is certainly an excellent writer, and A Morning For Flamingos is a book that one can enjoy many times and each time, get something else from it. I'm glad you suggested it.

  7. I have not read this book but have heard of the author. I've seen his books at the library. Thanks for the write up. I'm going to check out this book tomorrow as I need a book to read and I like to he sounds like an author I can learn a thing or three from.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. Stephen - That's exactly how I feel. Burke does several things with his writing that I really admire. I think you'll this one; I hope you do.

  9. I'm definitely enjoying your spotlight feature. I've seen this author's books on the shelf, but haven't read any of his work yet. After your wonderful review, I'm putting this one on my wish list. This is an intriguing story. I especially like the glimpse you've given of it. Looking forward to your next spotlight feature.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Why, thank you! I'm so glad you're enjoying this feature. Burke really makes excellent use, I think, of language and description, so I really hope that you'll enjoy this one. One of the advantages of starting with an earlier Robicheaux novels such as this one, too, is that you get some of the backstory for later novels.

  11. It is a crime that I have never read a single book by him. A real gap.

  12. Patti - I know what you mean; I've a whole list of authors whose work I should have read and have not...

  13. I haven't read any of his books but man, you make me want to go and spend my money on it immediately. I love it when bad guys aren't really that bad and good guys are not always perfect angels. The intricate plot in this one is amazing!


  14. Clarissa - You put your finger unerringly on one of the really strong threads through this book - the complex characterization. We get to really see what makes some of these people "tick" and that adds to the interest. So does the setting - it's quite an important element in the story.

  15. I'm so far behind on the Robicheaux series. This spotlight makes me want to jump in and read the last few books one after another. Now that would be a great way to wrap up the summer.


  16. It sounds really tempting, but right now I have decided to ´eat´ off my TBR for some time. I don´t read that many books right now anyway as my own writing is going rather well.

  17. Patricia - I know what you mean. There are a number of series I'm woefully behind on reading. This is a compelling series, though, isn't it? Maybe your summer schedule will let you catch up : ).

    Dorte - I am so happy to hear your writing is going well. That's terrific news : ). And I think you are wise to concentrate on that and on what's already on your TBR pile/list. Dave Robicheaux will still be waiting when you get to him... ; ).