“Harbor Lights” by James Lee Burke

Harbor Lights (Atlantic Monthly Press January 2024) by James Lee Burke is a collection of eight varied and gripping short stories by the multiple award-winning, bestselling author of the long-running Dave Robicheaux series. While harrowing in places, the stories collectively are stunningly powerful and impeccably crafted.

The book includes a previously unpublished novella, “Strange Cargo,” in which an aging author returns to his ancestral home in Louisiana and confronts evil both in the present and from the past. “Strange Cargo” is in some ways an intelligent ghost story, and it leans heavily upon some well tracked Southern tropes—a pot-bellied, evil sheriff for example. It also returns to some of Burke’s frequent themes, perhaps best summed up with C. Vann Woodward’s phrase, “the burden of Southern history.” For Burke, his Confederate dead will just not stay dead.

The advanced readers copy also contains a glaring mistake, in which the narrator reflects upon Tara, the home of Scarlett O’Hara, burning down in Gone with the Wind. Tara did not burn in either the book or the movie. For all this, “Strange Cargo” and the other seven stories are well worth reading given the power of these tales.

As these are stories written by a master at his trade, readers know to expect quality in the phrasing and language. And Burke does not disappoint. He writes with a sharp knife. However, within his tight prose readers should expect violence, cynicism, moral quandaries, unrelenting bleakness at times, a struggle between good and evil in which evil often has the upper hand, and a gut-punch quality in the endings.

James Lee Burke

There is a kind of casual brutality in the stories, and that could well be off-putting to many. “Strange Cargo” in particular has several incidences of cruelty and brutality, including a horrific scene involving an ax and several alligators (Review’s note: this was a very upsetting, gruesome scene) and several vicious incidences set in prison camps. Yet, Burke is, as he nearly always is, brilliant in the sheer glory of what he writes. His characterizations, his settings and world-building, and his plotting are, simply put, among the best out there.

Still, these stories are disturbing, unsettling, and unhappy. They are rife with tension and conflict, replete with the opposite of the happy ending, and the bursts of disturbing violence can be unnerving. But that’s the price one pays for the privilege of reading Burke.


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