ccasionally I miss out on ARCs and book proofs, and so when I realised the magisterial James Lee Burke had written another Dave Robicheaux novel, and that I was not on the publicist’s mailing list, I went and bought a Kindle version. Just shy of ten quid, but never has a tenner been better spent.
To be blunt, JLB is getting on a bit, and one wonders how long he can carry on writing such brilliant books. In the last few novels featuring the ageing New Iberia cop, there has been a definite autumnal feel, and The New Iberia Blues is no exception. Like his creator, Dave Robicheaux is not a young man, but boy, is he ever raging against the dying of the light.
series of apparently ritualised killings baffles the police department, beginning with a young woman strapped to a wooden cross and set adrift in the ocean. This death is just the beginning, and Robicheaux – aided, inevitably, by the elemental force that is Cletus Purcel – struggles to find the killer as the manner of the subsequent deaths exceeds abbatoir levels of brutality. There is no shortage of suspects. A driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary, a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row – you pays your money and you takes your choice. We even have the return of the bizarre and deranged contract killer known as Smiley – surely one of the most sinister and damaged killers in all crime fiction. Smiley is described as looking like a shapeless white caterpillar. Horrifically abused as a child, he is happiest when buying ice-creams for children – or killing bad people with Dranol or incinerating them with a flame thrower. Even Robicheaux’s new police partner, the fragrantly named Bailey Ribbons is not beyond suspicion.
As ever, the Louisiana landscape and climate is a larger-than-life presence. As the name suggests, New Iberia was founded by settlers from Malaga, but then came the Acadians, French settlers driven from Canada by the British. Their name was whittled down over the years until it became Cajun. Add to the mix Creole people, and the result is a culture that matches the tempestuous weather and exotically dangerous creatures that swim in the bayou.
Robicheaux’s take on the psychological and moral wasteland inhabited by conscientious cops is bleak and graphic:
“You can drink, smoke weed, melt your brains with downers or whites on the half shell, or transfer to vice and become a sex addict and flush your self-respect down the drain. None of it helps. You’re stuck unto the grave, in your sleep and during the waking day. And that’s when you start having thoughts about summary justice – more specifically, thoughts about loading up with pumpkin balls and double-aught bucks and painting the walls.”
Ghosts are never far from Robicheaux. His sense of history, of the glories and the miseries of the past, of old love and even more ancient hate, are only ever an arms reach away:
“When I sat under the tree at three in the morning, an old man watching a barge and tug working its way upstream, I knew that I no longer had to reclaim the past, that the past was still with me, inextricably part of my soul and who I was; I could step through a hole in the dimension and be with my father and mother again, and I didn’t have to drink or mourn the dead or live on a cross for my misdeeds; I was set free, and the past and the future and the present were at the ends of my fingertips ….”
ith writing that is as potent and smoulderingly memorable as Burke’s, the plot is almost irrelevant, but in between heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of the dawn rising over Bayou Teche, visceral anger at the damage the oil industry has done to a once-idyllic coast, and jaw-dropping portraits of evil men, Robicheaux patiently and doggedly pursues the killer, and we have a blinding finale which takes The Bobbsey Twins back to their intensely terrified – and terrifying – encounters in the jungles of Indo China.
The New Iberia Blues is published by Orion and is available now.