BOOKS: Likely Story

Mysteries strain credulity, but a best seller abuses the license

JAMES LEE BURKE, WHO WRITES swampy, phosphorescent thrillers about New Orleans (A Stained White Radiance, for example), suffers from a terrible and mostly undeserved reputation for fine writing. Perhaps to confront this slur head-on, he throws in some undeniably lavender flourishes on page 5 of his new best seller, Dixie City Jam (Hyperion; 367 pages; $22.95). "The wind was hot and sere," he reports. And "the sun looked like a white flame trapped inside the dead water." And "an occasional fork of lightning, like silver threads trembling inside the clouds." It's a weather bulletin delivered by choiring angels.

The author manages,...

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