Mysterious Book Report No. 325

by John Dwaine McKenna

Whenever a new book by James Lee Burke is released, I can’t wait to get my hands on it and promptly read it cover-to-cover.  It’s been that way since the early 1990s, when I heard him speak on NPR about a character he’d created; a fictional Cajun detective from New Iberia, Louisiana.  He was unique, this fictional detective, because he was an idealist with the quaint notion that he might speak for the neglected members of society, those poorly served by the American justice system because it can be so easily manipulated by unscrupulous people of wealth.  That altruism, plus an addiction to alcohol and a tendency to resort to violence when confronted by the enablers and perpetrators  of vile, vicious and evil acts against those who are powerless to defend themselves, make him one of the most interesting characters in crime fiction. And it is those very qualities, plus his reflections upon morality, philosophy, death, religion, literature and the essence of evil, which make him the most fascinating character in modern writing.  The detectives name is Dave Robicheaux.  He’s been speaking to all of us through twenty volumes and now, Mr. Burke has graced us, with his thirty-seventh novel overall, and twenty-first in the New Iberia, Louisiana deputy sheriffs series.  It’s eponymously titled Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 445 pages, ISBN 978-1-5011-7684-3) by James Lee Burke . . . and it’s a masterpiece.  The novel opens with Dave ruminating about his affinity for the departed: “. . . to pause and reflect upon my experiences with the dead and the hold they exert on our lives,” in Mr. Burke’s words, and then we learn that he sees confederate soldiers; ghosts marching in the fog at Spanish Lake; and that his wife Molly has been killed in a traffic accident by a speeder.  He describes his home as “cavernous with silence” and “the world I had known being airbrushed out of a painting.” He’s depressed, lonely and suffering from hallucinations when he gets “back on the dirty-boogie,” losing decades of sobriety in the process.  He’s blackout drunk on the night the man who killed his wife is found beaten to death . . . Dave can’t remember anything . . . but his fingerprints are all over the dead mans truck.  The event leaves Dave under a cloud of suspicion, and fearful that he’s a murderer.  And although there’s a pall over him, he’s not suspended.  Robicheaux still has to do his job, because things are heating up all over the parish.  An old mob boss and wannabe filmmaker from New Orleans shows up, along with a local politician who has national aspirations and a civil war sword belonging to the family of a prominent writer.  He lives a little ways up the teche and owns the story rights to the film the Mafia Don wants to produce.  Then, there’s Dave’s old pal, and human wrecking ball Clete Purcell, daughter Alafair, a new deputy with a suspicious history, a couple of hitters from Miami, a grief-stricken widow and a string of grisly murders taking place that Robicheaux and Sheriff Helen Soileau are racing to solve before the body count reaches awesome proportions in this epic work of southern noir.  Read it for yourself and join James Lee Burke’s legions of devoted fans!

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