James Lee Burke’s most beloved character, Dave Robicheaux, returns in Robicheaux—a gritty, atmospheric mystery set in the towns and backwoods of Louisiana.
My favorite James Lee Burke is angry, old James Lee Burke.
With Robicheaux—his 21st novel starring the eponymous retired NOLA Homicide cop turned PI turned sheriff in the Elysian Babylon of Iberia Parish—Burke has written another operatic novel of human perseverance and frailty that will be familiar to fans of his work without being predictable or boring. By this time, we know his themes, his leitmotifs, and his riffs. Think of it like the framework of a sonnet, a canvas and palette, or a murder ballad rocker’s beat that allows the artist to create something new using hooks and phrases we know well.
Burke has seen what’s happening in our country before, and here, he seemingly predicts the Hollywood sexual assault scandals while he writes a story that makes knowing nods to Huey Long and Bud Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd and spins a tale of a folksy son of a ruthless oil baron who rises in populist politics. Jimmy Nightingale is young, hides his narcissism well, and wants to be a good man—unlike the “outsider” politician he most assuredly is modeled after. He embraces the disgraced Klansman and politician Bobby Earl, who is not the Duke of Earl if you can’t figure out the Louisiana hatemonger he’s jabbing at. The one who inspired my favorite political bumper sticker: VOTE FOR THE CROOK! IT’S IMPORTANT. That was when David Duke ran against a convicted pol and lost, unlike today when an Alabama child molester nearly defeated a war hero. A different time.
A time Dave Robicheaux would like to boogie back to post haste. The novel kicks off with one of Burke’s poetic soliloquies, a romantic historian’s lament, as he sucks at the lotus fruit of nostalgia:
This may seem a macabre perspective on one’s life, but at a certain point it seems to be the only one we have. Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is. If there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning inside a basement that has no windows.
Dave is seeing the “boys in butternut” in the mists of the Atchafalaya again, who he first saw in one of his best, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. This book returns to the idea of a film crew in New Iberia, this time working on Dave’s daughter Alafair’s script of a famous Louisiana historical novelist, Levon Broussard, who later gets tangled in a murder investigation that is never resolved. I liked that Burke leaves things unknown. The thriller where every mystery is tied in a neat bow has become less of an enjoyment for me to read and more of a writer showing off their ribbon knotting skills. Like life, we see people make the same mistakes, people die taking secrets to their graves, and we are left with mysteries where we will never know what truly happened.
And yet, Burke makes a satisfying epic from it. And as always, he gets his characters down. Dave and Clete are both vets, and like all vets I’ve known, they do not speak of battle in glowing terms.
I nodded not knowing what to say. I disliked people who thought war was a glorious endeavor, and I disliked those who enjoyed talking about it. I despised those who had not seen war yet espoused it and lived vicariously through the suffering of others and never gave a thought to the civilians and children who died in burn wards or were buried under collapsed buildings.
If he weren’t selling 175,000 copies of every novel, James Lee Burke would be a “writer’s writer,” with his magnificent sentences that flow smoother than the Big Muddy and as beautiful as the primordial swamps that it brings to life. And he can focus like a laser and write biting, snappy sentences like the best of the pulps as well:
Drive-through daiquiri windows are open until two A.M. You can get plowed before you go to midnight Mass. Fans get wildly drunk at baseball games. If anyone tells you he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from New Orleans. Louisiana is not a state; it’s an outdoor mental asylum in which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.
For some, he’s as guilty of moralizing as his romantic, tragic hero Dave Robicheaux himself. Dave’s contemporaries take him to task for his high-and-mighty attitude when he himself has committed violent crimes and atrocities. The person he forgives the least is himself; the most, Clete Purcell, his vengeful buddy from homicide with a self-destructive streak.
In this one, Clete takes in the abused child of a career criminal, trying to save the boy like he could save his younger self. We’re also introduced to another orphaned killer savant, this one named Chester Wimple, the epitome of the bully’s target turned into a hate-seeking missile. It’s the one conceit of even the best crime fiction that we never portray the majority of survivors who simply lead normal lives. I was glad that he never goes with that other favorite trope, The Honorable Gangster, and shows them as they are:
Long ago, I came to regard the Mob in New Orleans as I would an infected gland. Most of them had the technical skill of bed carriers. They were brutal, stupid to the core, and had the visceral instincts of medieval peasants armed with pitchforks. Their sexual appetites were a hooker’s nightmare. The portrayal of them as family men was a joke. They preyed on the weak, corrupted unions, appropriated mom-and-pop stores, and created object lessons with chain saws and meat hooks. The reinvention of this bunch as Elizabethan men of honor probably would have made Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow sick.
Too many bought into Gotti’s PR about throwing block parties and “keeping the neighborhood safe” and forgot that he (allegedly) cut the man who accidentally killed his son in a car accident in half with a chainsaw, thanks to an HBO biopic which has him admonishing his soldiers to “leave it alone” with honor. (Chainsaw or not, John Favaro disappeared and was never found.)
In the book’s 441 pages, we get a lot of targets. Alafair’s work with Hollywood predicts the Weinstein scandal, and instead of creating a composite character for us to loathe, it brings an old mob favorite into the mix who's looking to immortalize himself with his name as Executive Producer. And he points the finger at everyone who looks the other way as complicit. It reminded me of the late Sue Grafton—may she rest in peace—who began in Hollywood and never wanted her creation Kinsey Millhone to be adapted for the screen. She knew the score. The character now belongs to her, and her fans, forever.
Robicheaux begins with Dave thinking himself a murderer, and in the end, he is never cleared. Like 2017, we are distracted by new and greater outrages as the story goes on, with the initial grief of Dave’s loss erased by the chaos and madness around him. The one flaw is that the loss of Dave’s wife, Molly, which begins the novel, would be the center of everything in real life. As I write this, I am in the home of a family who lost a father and husband five months ago, and his death is as fresh and sharp as air on a burn wound. We lose track of that through the story, perhaps Dave is deflecting from it, but the book ends without a mention or without circling back to it. It’s the one thing that would distract from the madness we’ve endured.
So I will leave you with one more wonderful paragraph by the Maestro of Missoula that brings to life the ugliness of crowds, written with an anger so deep that it fueled this ranging epic of his beloved home state, which keeps turning to stick him and itself with knives—a state as self-destructive as his tragic heroes:
His adherents wore baseball caps and T-shirts and tennis shoes and dresses made in Thailand. Walmart, a smartphone, a Tundra, and bread and circuses were symbols; they were a culture. The poorest neighborhoods in the state always had a coin-operated carwash. In twenty-four hours, a drop in oil prices could take everything they owned. They were the bravest people on earth, bar none. They got incinerated in oil-well blowouts, crippled by tongs and chains on the drill floor, and hit by lightning laying pipe in a swamp in the middle of an electric storm, and they did it all without complaint. If you wanted to win a revolution, this was the bunch to get on your side. The same could be said if you wanted to throw the Constitution in the trash can.
While not as mighty as his masterpiece The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in the aftermath of Katrina, Robicheaux earns its name as a consummate novel of the man we’ve followed for 21 novels, from The Neon Rain until today. You could pick it up without knowing the past 20 and be entertained, or you could see it as a capstone, what could be a final novel in one of the most enduring series in fiction. It is that rare, compelling page-turner that speaks in poetic stanzas that elevate an everyman into a paladin of Charlemagne for refusing to bend the knee before the charlatans who promise to leave us treasures with the corrupt effluvium in their wake.
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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”
Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”