A Private Cathedral

Mysterious Book Report No. 412

by John Dwaine McKenna

Whenever CWA Grand Master and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient James Lee Burke brings forth a new work of fiction, the world of mystery, thriller and crime readers and writers sits up and takes notice.  We know it will be lyrically written and thought provoking . . . as well as exciting, violent and philosophical . . . all at the same time.  Mr. Burke’s ability to compare beauty and squalor, kindness and violence, as well as the struggle to do good by committing evil in the world—all in exquisite beautiful prose—is nothing less than magical

In his newest release (and 40th novel) entitled:

A Private Cathedral, (Simon and Schuster, $28.00, 416 pages, ISBN 978-1-9821-5168-3) James Lee Burke has created a genre-jumping, mind-bending and captivating yarn that many will consider to be the best of his 23 novels set in Louisiana and featuring an imperfect, tortured detective named Dave Robicheaux.  The MBR is one of them.

As the novel begins, it’s late in the 1990s.  Dave Robicheaux is battling his addiction to alcohol, trying to get his job and his badge back and mourning the deaths of two wives; the first by violence and the second from disease.  And, as if that’s not enough to deal with, he has profound guilt and flashbacks from his time in the Vietnam War.  The last thing he needs is to get sucked into one of the most bloody and deadliest criminal feuds in Louisiana history.  But of course, that’s just what happens when Dave comes to the aid of a pair of star-crossed young lovers named Johnny Shondell and Isolde Balangie.

Johnny is a teen idol and a talented musician who’s making his way up the pop charts.  He and Isolde have discovered that they’re soul mates, devoted to and enraptured by each other.  Trouble is however, the Shondell and Balangie clans have been at war for centuries.  Several generations ago, they devised a plan to keep from destroying each other.  The pact is simple.  Periodically, the weaker clan will send an immediate family member to be held as hostage by the other,  which is why Johnny is being forced to deliver Isolde to his uncle for use as a sex slave.  Dave Robicheaux, a modern knight-errant in tarnished armor, and his partner Clete Purcell are honor bound to intervene on behalf of the defenseless young couple.  But when Robicheaux gets too close to Isolde’s mother, who’s the consort of a mobster from New Orleans, the Mafia Don puts out a contract on Dave and Clete.  The assassin he calls forth is a terrifying ghostly apparition who travels through time on a spectral slave ship to wreak havoc on the present . . . where the battle between the forces of good and evil reach epic proportions.

Combining crime fiction with a hard-boiled noir thriller, and a dose of the paranormal, A Private Cathedral puts James Lee Burke in a dimension of his own.  It’s a place where angels fear to tread . . . and ordinary wordsmiths can only wish they could get to!

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