Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 447 pages, ISBN 970-1-5011-7687-6
Whenever a new James Lee Burke novel comes out, everyone celebrates. The publishers and agents are happy because they’re assured of another commercial success, as are the bookstores, who know that his legions of fans will be calling or dropping by to get a copy. Crime fiction, mystery and thriller enthusiasts will be smiling in anticipation of another foray into the mind and philosophy and lyrical prose of “America’s greatest writer,” according to the Denver Post; and even other novelists . . . usually an envious and stiff upper-lipped group . . . are eager to get another crack at trying to figure out just how the hell he does what he does with such commercial and critical success, while at the same time, others struggle in oblivion. We think it’s because Mr. Burke speaks to the heart of all who have read any of his previous thirty-six novels or two short-story collections. Now, in his thirty-seventh and newest work, The New Iberia Blues, by James Lee Burke, he returns to his southwest Louisiana roots and the iconic, self-destructive and tragic character who made the author himself famous . . . New Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department Homicide Detective Dave Robicheaux.
The novel begins when Robicheaux discovers the body of a woman who’s been ritualistically murdered in a brutal re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion; her body mounted on a wooden cross and set out to sea. The only possible clue . . . a metal chain on one ankle, where a tiny piece of silver wire is all that’s left of a charm, meant to ward off the gris-gris, or evil spirits which many of the poor and superstitious people of southern Louisiana believe are everywhere, waiting to pounce on the unwary. But Lucinda Arceneaux is only the first of several bizarre murders in which the victims are posed in representations of the major suits of the Tarot. Could the killings be the work of a childlike and deranged serial killer by the name of Chester Wimple, who’s been seen late at night, prowling outside Dave’s house; or perhaps the murders are the work of Hugo Tillinger, the Texas death row inmate whose daring escape was witnessed by Robicheaux’s longtime pal Clete Purcel. But, there’s also a film crew in the area, run by a man who was born in the parish . . . to a poor and underprivileged family. His name is Desmond Cormier. He left the area twenty-five years ago, with nothing but his own big dreams, and came back as a renowned director, the recipient of an Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe and the adulation of all the world. Cormier’s returned to create his own film masterpiece, one based upon the good versus evil, dark and light contrasts displayed in the John Ford classic, My Darling Clementine. Cormier however, has problems. He’s over budget, heavily in debt to the New Jersey mob and dogged by unsavory hanger-on’ers who all have the capacity for evil deeds according to Dave Robicheaux. And as if that’s not enough, Dave’s been assigned a beautiful partner named Bailey Ribbons, who he’s sexually attracted to, in spite of his much greater age. As the killings become more macabre, savage and brazen, Robicheaux has to over come his own personal demons and catch the killer, or risk losing his own precious daughter, Alafair, in this propulsive and fiendishly inventive plot from the American crime fiction master.