The Bayou Trilogy: Under The Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell

A few years ago now, I read and reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and loved it for its grim, gritty reality and plucky teenage heroine, Ree Dolly. I can’t say that I was too surprised to see that the novel went on to become the basis of a successful and award-winning independent film of the same name, after all, the elements were firmly in place, and this wasn’t the first time that one of Woodrell’s novels had been made into film. His 1987 novel Woe to Live On became the Ang Lee directed film Ride with Devil. The Bayou Trilogy is Woodrell’s début release on Little, Brown’s new mystery/suspense/thriller imprint Mulholland Books. Woodrell’s trilogy of crime novels, Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do, chronicling the misadventures of Louisiana detective Renée Shade are collected into a single volume.

So far I have read the first book in the series, and of Woodrell’s writing career, Under The Bright Lights. While naturally a little less polished than his later novels, Woodrell proves to have already been a talented writer, capable of submerging readers into an alternate world where the deeds of the police and politicians are as nefarious as those of the criminals. Woodrell does such a good job of ensconcing the reader into that world that it was really like being in an unfamiliar place, and I found it pretty uncomfortable at the start.

The language was different,  tougher, and sometimes hard to decode. I had no idea what people were talking about and what was going on. They lived by rules with which I could barely grasp, and the morass of cultures and racial tension in the close neighborhoods of St. Bruno, Louisiana made it a scary place to contemplate. When a black businessman is killed Detective Rene Shade is ordered to find that it is the result of a burglary/homicide, rather than chance racial unrest in the city, but even Shade’s own ambiguous sense of morality won’t let him do anything less than solve the case.

Shade’s ability to perform his duties are helped and hindered by a sketchy cast of characters including a boss answering to politicians who really don’t want the case solved,  an abrasive and morally questionable partner, and equally shifty brothers, one a lawyer concerned with his own political career, and the other the owner of the local watering hole. Woodrell covers a multitude of perspectives, alternating between the investigation into various murder and mayhem breaking out all over the city, and the different criminals groups involved in perpetrating the crimes. While the point is for Shade to solve his case, the novel is just as much a sociological study of both the investigators and crime perpetrators – where they come from, how they live and their motivations. Most times, and as a complicating factor, Shade is dealing with people who he has known a long time just from growing up in the neighborhood. The relationships are complex because of the shared history in St. Bruno.

Under The Bright Lights is ultimately a complex and intriguing read, with thoroughly absorbing characters. This is by far the most hard-core crime novel that I have read, and I would recommend it to those who normally enjoy intense and immersive crime fiction. I will be following along to see what Shade get up to next, but not without a little breaks for some lighter fare. Recommended.

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