The Edgar Awards Revisited: Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke (Best Novel; 1990)
By Paul DoironSeptember 13, 2019
Join Edgar-nominated author Paul Doiron for a look at Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke—1990's Best Novel according to the Mystery Writers of America!
Published in 1989, James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues was the first of his two books to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel (his other came in 1998 for Cimarron Rose). It is the third in Burke’s signature series starring Detective Dave Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic and Vietnam War veteran from New Iberia, Louisiana. And just so you know my own biases here, I need to state at the outset that the Robicheaux series is my favorite being published today and that no living crime novelist has had a greater influence on my own writing than James Lee Burke.
Robicheaux, for those who have yet to make his acquaintance, is one of the great characters in contemporary literature. A former drunk and observant Catholic, he is a man prone to nostalgic visions, boundless compassion, righteous anger, and violent outbursts. His demons are legion. He is haunted by God, by booze, by rage at the cruelty and greed of human beings, and mostly, by the irrecoverable past of his childhood in Cajun South of the 1940s.
When we first meet him in The Neon Rain, he is still employed as a homicide detective in New Orleans and has already traded nights in the squalid bars of the French Quarter for sunrise meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous. In the next novel, Heaven’s Prisoners, he has returned to his hometown of New Iberia to run a bait and boat-rental shop on Bayou Teche and nurture empty ideas of having a conventional family. But nothing lasts in the life of Dave Robicheaux, just as nothing lasts in our own lives. The ghosts of his past drift back into his life with the regularity of the electric mists that follow thunderstorms.
All of the Robicheaux novels are ghost stories. In Black Cherry Blues, spirits take the form of his dead father, blown up in an oil rig explosion when Dave was young, and his own late wife whose murder was a consequence of his heedless actions. She speaks to him in dreams and seems to beckon him to follow her to the other side.
“I don’t buy that stuff about a death wish,” Robicheaux tells a psychiatrist, trying to help him deal with his grief. “I think some guys in Vienna had too much time to think.”
The exchange that follows captures both Burke’s gift for dialogue and the essence of Robicheaux’s character. The psychiatrist responds:
“How did you feel in Vietnam when the man next to you was hit?”
“What do you think I felt?”
“At some point you were glad it was him and not you. And then you felt guilty. And that was very dangerous, wasn’t it?”
“All alcoholics feel guilt. Go to an open meeting some time. Learn something about it.”
“Cut loose from the past. She wouldn’t want you to carry a burden like this.”
“I can’t. I don’t want to.”
“Say it again.”
“I don’t want to.”
In Black Cherry Blues, another “ghost” takes the corporeal form of Dixie Lee Pugh, Dave’s freshman-year roommate from Southwestern Louisiana Institute, who enjoyed a brief moment of fame as a white blues singer in the early days of rock ’n’ roll before a hit-and-run accident sent him to Huntsville Pen. Dixie has been reduced to drinking himself senseless in clapboard roadhouses, which is where Robicheaux and he cross paths in the first chapter of the book. Dave knows that his old friend is bad news but he has a soft spot for hard cases.
The former musician and current leaseman for the Star Drilling oil company has made trouble for himself with Sally Dio: a mobster whose family “used to run Galveston” but who now oversees his criminal enterprises from a lakeside redoubt in Montana. Inevitably Dixie’s trouble soon becomes Dave’s. When two of Dio’s goons beat Dixie to a pulp, it’s only a matter of time until Robicheaux pays them an ill-considered visit. When one of the men turns up butchered, Robicheaux finds himself arrested for murder.
And this is where Burke makes a surprising and bold move with his plot. Having established Dave Robicheaux’s soul as being inseparable from southwest Louisiana, the place as pinned to him as his own shadow, Burke rips the man from his native ground and sends him on the run, north to the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, headed for an inevitable showdown with Sally Dio.
The dislocation is as violent for the reader as it is for Robicheaux, but the author pulls it off, thanks in part to his unequaled descriptive powers. Here is Dave exploring the Blackfoot River canyon:
The rock cliffs were red and sheer and rose straight up three hundred feet. The crests were thick with ponderosa, and the water, blue and green, turned in deep pools where the current had eaten under the cliffs. The rocks along the shore were bone white and etched with dried insects, and out beyond the canyon’s shadows, the great boulders in the middle of the river were steaming in the sun and flies were hatching out in a gray mist above the riffle.
I have never been to Montana, but Burke’s description is so vivid I can see that river as clearly as if from personal memory. Indeed, one of my motivations in writing my own series of novels set in the woods and waters of Maine has been to do what James Lee Burke does for the landscapes in his books, be they the bayous of Louisiana, the mountains of Montana, or the prairies of Texas. I want to render the North Woods with such lucidity that readers who have never visited Maine will put down the book feeling they did.
The other reason Black Cherry Blues succeeds so brilliantly is the clarifying light it casts on the two prior Robicheaux books, as well as those that follow. While those books are set in the virtual and literal swamps of the South, and while they are hung with the trappings of crime fiction, they are at their heart Westerns. The resolution of the mystery is less important than the collision of two moral opposites. In different ways, they tell the tale of a lone hero beset on all sides by what Quentin Tarantino (another fan of Westerns) termed “the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”
Those of us who read James Lee Burke do so for Robicheaux and his oft-imitated sidekick Clete Purcell, for the lush language, for the gorgeous settings, but most of all because, in a time when politics, business, and culture seem to have torn apart at the seams, we need to believe in a hero who—however haunted—can see with moral clarity and act with force to vanquish the wicked and avenge the innocent dead.
It is for this reason that Black Cherry Blues has the power to haunt us thirty years after its publication.
Fun Facts from the 1990 Edgar Awards:
The other nominees for Best Novel included A Question of Guilt by Frances Fyfield, Death of a Joyce Scholar by Bartholomew Gill, Goldilocks by Andrew Coburn, and The Booster by Eugene Izzi.
Best First Novel went to The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe. The other nominees were Bruce Zimmerman (Blood Under the Bridge), Barry Berg (Hide and Seek), Melodie Johnson Howe (The Murder Shadow), and Susan Taylor Chehak (The Story of Annie D.).
Best Short Story went to “Too Many Crooks” by Donald E. Westlake, originally appearing in the August ’89 issue of Playboy. The other nominees were “Afraid All the Time” by Nancy Pickard, “Ted Bundy’s Father” by Ruth Graviros, and “The Girl and the Gator” by Robert Halsted.
- Cult-classic Heathers won Best Motion Picture, edging out Crimes and Misdemeanors, Licence to Kill, Sea of Love, and True Believer.
Helen McCloy served as the Grand Master.
- Joel Davis was given the Ellery Queen Award.
Next week, tune in as we stay in the Bayou as Angie Barry takes a look at New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.