FLAMINGOS.James Lee Burke. Little, Brown...


February 03, 1991|By TIM WARREN THE MIDNIGHT HORSE. Sid Fleischman; illustrations by Peter Sis. Greenwillow Books. 84 pages. $12.95. Ages 8 and up.


James Lee Burke. Little, Brown. 294 pages. $18.95. Things got too personal and too rough for Dave Robicheaux when he was a homicide detective in New Orleans. He got mixed up with the wrong crowd and lost a career, a wife and most of his soul. Now he's back in New Iberia, La., working in the police department and trying to nurse the many wounds he's accumulated from a broken childhood, a tour in Vietnam and 30 years of finding solace in the bottle. But he gets no peace. The simple job of transporting a convict named Jimmie Lee Boggs becomes a brush with death. Robicheaux not only takes a bullet during Boggs' escape but knows that he will never be free from this thoroughly evil man.

In this fourth Dave Robicheaux book, James Lee Burke again shows why he is among the best crime novelists around. His prose is lush and evocative, especially in depicting the seedy and ominous New Orleans and South Louisiana underworlds. The lines between good and evil oft become blurred, and Robicheaux regularly straddles them as he becomes involved in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting. As he battles his fears and demons, he also becomes involved in a world of "federal agents and wiseguys, narcs and stings and brain-fried lowlifes, and all -- the seriousness and pretense we invest in the province of moral invalids." Occasional overwriting bordering on preciousness and a slightly pat ending keep "Flamingos" from being as memorable as Mr. Burke's last book, the Edgar Award-winning "Black Cherry Blues," but it's better than nearly everything else out there.

The many extraordinary Sid Fleischman characters -- McBroom, Mr. Mysterious and Chancy -- move over to make room for Touch and the Great Chaffalo in this latest adventure of magic and thievery in the wild days of early America.

It is while riding in a stagecoach on a day when it is "raining Bullfrogs" that Touch first hears the chiming watch of the magician haunt, "The Great Chaffalo," a living ghost who can turn straw into a bay stallion with a golden mane, and can carry Touch to safety from his uncle and "protector," Judge Wigglesforth. Add a ubiquitous Otis Cratt enveloped in a muffler around his neck, chin and mouth; the lovely Miss Sally, an innkeeper who is being tricked and cheated by Cricklewood, N.H.'s leading citizen and "Infernal grouch," and a brave, honest blacksmith and the cast is complete in this highly satisfying melodrama.

What has happened to Touch's inheritance? What is the fate othe barber with the gold teeth, who spent one night in Miss Sally's inn and was never seen again? How evil is the evil Judge? Mr. Fleischman and illustrator Peter Sis, who also collaborated on the 1987 Newbery-winning "Whipping Boy," once again have created a fine book that is humorous, exciting and suspenseful.


ROUGH RED. Martin Sylvester. Villard.

296 pages. $17.95.

William Warner, London-based wine merchant, bon vivant and amateur sleuth, is vacationing in the South of France with his wife and two teen-age daughters. Near the end of the two-week vacation, Warner is bored and itching to return to London, his business and mistress. Before he leaves, the disappearance of an English doctor's daughter piques Warner's interest. The police figure she ran away and give a cursory probe. Deciding it would be a nice diversion from the tedium of his holiday, Warner offers his services.

Martin Sylvester's "Rough Red" is the third William Warneadventure. Warner is a charming rogue, and although the pacing of "Rough Red" is a little slow at the beginning it picks up. While hardly an edge-of-the-seat-thriller, the novel is unusual and the settings authentic. The result is a nice suspense novel and as pleasant as a robust Burgundy.


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