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"Dave Robicheaux"

ROBICHEAUX:You Know My Name … Between the covers

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Chat-Author-James-Lee-BurkeJames Lee Burke (left) turned 81 in early December 2017. When I picture the face of his majestic but flawed hero, Dave Robicheaux, it is his creator’s face I see. The Robicheaux books have been filmed several times but the best one I have seen is In The Electric Mist (2009) starring Tommy Lee Jones, and Mr Jones is good a ringer for Mr Burke – and my vision of Robicheaux – as you will ever see.

Dave Robicheaux is a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana, a few miles down the road from its big sister, New Orleans. Burke introduced him in The Neon Rain (1987) and, since then, fans like me have followed Dave’s every move, in and out of alcoholism, sharing his visions of ghostly Confederate troops trudging their spectral way through the swampland and along the fringes of the bayous, and bringing down bad men with the help of his bail skiptracer buddy, the elemental force known as Cletus Purcell.

Robicheaux: You Know My Name has an end-of-days feel about it. Is this endgame for Robicheaux? Emotionally, he is in a bad way. His wife (the latest of several) Molly is dead, innocent victim in a case of reckless driving.

“I could not sleep Sunday night, and on Monday I woke with a taste like pennies in my mouth and a sense that my life was unspooling before me, that the world in which I lived was a fabrication, that the charity abiding in the human breast was a collective self-delusion …”

His adopted daughter Alafair is away writing her novels and making her way in the world. Even Tripod, his three-legged raccoon pal is no more. Choose your metaphor; a gathering wind bearing a scent of impending catastrophe, a cloud of retribution, a murmured lament for the dead and dying becoming louder by the minute? Robicheaux describes one of the characters;

“I was old enough to know that insanity comes in many forms, some benign, some viral and capable of spreading across continents, but I believed I had just looked into the eyes of someone who was genuinely mad and probably not diagnosable, the kind of idealist who sets sail on the Pequod and declares war against the universe.”

All very gothic and, perhaps, melodramatic, but fans of the series will know not to expect half measures. The overpowering Louisiana climate does not do pastel shades: it never drizzles – the rain comes down like magnum bullets clanging into tin roofs; the wet heat saps the spirit, and makes men mad, and women madder.

Cover“That weekend, southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.”

The plot? Obviously there is one, and it is excellent, but such is the power and poetry of James Lee Burke’s writing that the action is often completely subsumed by the language. A grim ostinato to the story is Robicheaux’s bitter resentment towards the man whose reckless driving killed Molly. Said driver is found dead, and Robicheaux become prime suspect in a murder case..

“How do you handle it when your anger brims over the edge of the pot?You use the shortened version of the Serenity Prayer, which is “Fuck it”. Like Voltaire’s Candide tending his own garden, or the British infantry going up the Khyber Pass one bloody foot at a time, you do your job, and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke, and you just keep saying, “Fuck it”…..”Fuck it” is not profanity. “Fuck it” is a sonnet.”

As his problems mount, Robicheaux succumbs once more to his personal demon. It is , however, a demon shared by a great many other of his fellow citizens:

“If anyone tells you he he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from New Orleans. Louisiana is not a state;it’s an outdoor mental asylum in which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.”

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Bent fellow cop Spade Labiche is involved in all manner of dirty deals and deeds, while former top federal informant – and thoroughly vile human being – Kevin Penny is found dead in his trailer, slowly murdered by an electric drill. Meanwhile, as Clete Purcell plays foster parent to Penny’s young son, dying mobster Tony Nemo attempts to bankroll a Civil War movie written by an angry novelist whose wife may (or may not) have been raped by the charismatic Trump-like politician, Jimmy Nightingale. Robicheaux attends one of Nightingale’s campaign rallies.

“He gave voice to those who had none – and to those who had lost their jobs because of bankers and Wall Street stockbrokers and NAFTA politicians who had made a sieve of our borders and allowed millions of illegals into our towns and cities…..Was he race-baiting or appealing to the xenophopia and nativism that goes back to the Irish immigration of the 1840s? Not in the mind of his audience. Jimmy was telling it like it is.”

James Lee Burke is nothing if not passionate about how powerful people abuse the weak, the poor, the defenceless and the gullible. His bad men are satanic and implacable – until they meet the destructive force-field created when Robicheaux and Purcell – The Bobsy Twins – go into action. This is a bleak book emotionally, riven with anger, yet full of the poetry of loss and mortality.

“…the dead are still with us, like the boys in butternut marching through the flooded cypress at Spanish Lake, and the slaves who beckon us to remove the chains that bind them to the auction block, and all the wandering souls who want to scratch their names on a plaster wall so someone will remember their sacrifice, the struggle that began with the midwife’s slap of life, and their long day’s journey into the grave.”

Robicheaux: You Know My Name is out today, 2 January 2018, in Kindle and will be published as a hardback by Orion on 11th January.

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A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL . . . between the covers

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Is it tempting fate to wonder who is the oldest living crime writer? James Lee Burke (below) is now 83, but writing better than ever. A Private Cathedral is another episode in the tempestuous career of Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and the force of nature that is is his friend Clete Purcel. Ostensibly about a simmering war between two gangster families, it goes to places untouched by any of the previous twenty two novels.

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All the old familiar elements are there – Dave, as ever, battles with drink:

“No, I didn’t want to simply drink. I wanted to swallow pitchers of Jack Daniels and soda and shaved ice and bruised mint, and chase them with frosted mug beer and keep the snakes under control with vodka and Collins mix and cherries and orange slices, until my rockets had a three-day supply of fuel and I was on the far side of the moon.”

Then there are the astonishing and vivid descriptions of the New Iberia landscape, the explosive violence, and Louisiana’s dark history. But this novel has a villain unlike any other James Lee Burke has created before. We have met some pretty evil characters over the years, but they have been human and mortal. Robicheaux,  long prone to seeing visions of dead Confederate soldiers, is now faced with an adversary called Gideon, who is also from another world, but with human powers to wreak terrible violence.

APC cover008The Shondell and the Balangie families manipulate, pervert and use people. Robicheaux suspects that seventeen year-old Isolde Balangie has, to be blunt, been pimped out by her father to Mark Shondell. A ‘friendly fire’ casualty is a talented young singer, Johnny Shondell, Mark’s nephew. Ever present, bubbling away beneath the surface of the Bayou Teche is the past. At one point, we even get to walk past the great man’s house, so why not use his most celebrated quote?

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem For A Nun

The past involves Mafia hits, grievances nursed and festering over generations, and the sense that the Louisiana shoreline has been witness to countless abuses over the years, from the brutality of slavery through to the rape of nature to which abandoned and rotting stumps of oil rigs bear vivid testimony.

Music – usually sad or poignantly optimistic – is always ringing in our ears in the Robicheaux books. Sometimes it is Dixieland jazz, sometimes blues and sometimes the bitter sweet bounce of Cajun songs. At one point, the young singer Johnny takes his guitar and plays:

“He sat down on the bench and made an E chord and rippled the plectrum across the strings. The he sang ‘Born to Be with You’ by the Chordettes. The driving rhythm of the music and the content of the lyrics were like a wind sweeping across a sandy beach.”

In A Private Cathedral, the plot is not over-complex. It is Dave and Clete – The Bobbsy Twins – against the forces of darkness. Burke gives us what is necessary to ensure the narrative drive, but everything is consumed by the poetry. Sometimes it is the poetry of violence and passion; more tellingly, it is the poetry of valiant despair, the light of decency and honour, guttering out in the teeth of a malignant gale which forces Dave and Clete to bend and stumble, but never quite crack and fall.

A Private Cathedral is published by Orion and is out now. For more on James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux, click here.

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ON MY SHELF . . . August 2020

OMS headerIt looks as though the bastards at WordPress have done their worst, and inflicted the ‘new improved’ system on us. Bastards. I rarely swear in print, but this time I have a good excuse.The good news, however, is that I have some lovely new books in my shelf. Full reviews will follow in due course, but here’s a little introduction to each.

A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL by James Lee Burke

The great man is knocking on 84 years old, but he has lost none of his creative drive. Dave Robicheaux and his explosive buddy Cloetus Purcel are back in A Private Cathedral, another dose of Southern Noir for addicts like myself. It seems that Dave, long prone to seeing visions of dead Confederate soldiers, is about to enter an even more terrifying supernatural world, as he tries to dampen down a violent feud between two Louisiana crime families – and combat an adversary who is not constrained by normal human bounds. A Private Cathedral is out now, from Simon & Schuster.

GATHERING DARK by Candice Fox

Last year I reviewed Gone By Midnight by the Australian writer Candice Fox, and I was very impressed. Now, she crosses the ocean to Los Angeles and introduces us to two strong women – Detective Jessica Sanchez and Blair Harbour, a former top surgeon jailed for a murder she didn’t commit, and now caught up in a vendetta which involves crooked cops and senior gangland figures. The Kindle for Gathering Dark came out in March this year, the paperback is due on 3rd September, but hardback fans will have to wait until next year for a copy. Publishers are, respectively, Cornerstone Digital, Arrow, and Forge.

AND THE SEA DARKENED by Vicki Lloyd

It sounds as if we have a touch of the Agathas here – a remote island, a storm closing in, an intractable and violent sea and – of course – a relentless killer on the loose. Throw into the mix an outside world bitterly split by false news and tribalism, and brothers Magnus and Nick, habitually at each other’s throats, are at first captivated by the arrival of a young academic called Jasmin, but then her presence threatens to turn a bleak situation into a catastrophe. And The Sea Darkened is published by Book Guild and is out on 28th August.

STILL LIFE by Val McDermid

A new book by the most celebrated supporter of Raith Rovers is always an event. 2019 saw the latest episode in the troubled saga of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, How The Dead Speak, but now we have a book featuring another long-term favourite, DCI Karen Pirie. A body washed up on a bleak shore by fishermen spells the beginning of a traumatic investigation in which Pirie must confront a legacy of secrets, conspiracy and betrayal involving some very high profile names. Still Life is published by Little, Brown in Kindle and hardback on 20th August, and a paperback is due next year.

THE NEW IBERIA BLUES . . . Between the covers

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Occasionally 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.

TNIBTo 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.

Aseries 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.”

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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 ….”

With 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.

 

THE AMERICAN SOUTH. . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (3): The Dead Are Still With Us

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I’ll kick off (before it all kicks off) and say that for no other reasons than style and simplicity, I am going to use the word black to describe characters in crime novels who other people may wish to call Afro-American or People of Colour. If that decision offends anyone, then so be it.

The racial element in South-set crime fiction over the last half century is peculiar in the sense that there have been few, if any, memorable black villains. There are plenty of bad black people in Walter Mosley’s novels, but then most of the characters in them are black, and they are not set in what are, for the purposes of this feature, our southern heartlands.

heatfirstedition-a2c9af52Black characters are almost always good cops or PIs themselves, like Virgil Tibbs in John Ball’s In The Heat of The Night (1965), or they are victims of white oppression. In the latter case there is often a white person, educated and liberal in outlook, (prototype Atticus Finch, obviously) who will go to war on their behalf. Sometimes the black character is on the side of the good guys, but intimidating enough not to need help from their white associate. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books are mostly set in the northern states, but Parker’s dangerous black buddy Louis is at his devastating best in The White Road (2002) where Parker, Louis and Angel are in South Carolina working on the case of a young black man accused of raping and killing his white girlfriend.

Ghosts, either imagined or real, are never far from Charlie Parker, but another fictional cop has more than his fair share of phantoms. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux frequently goes out to bat for black people in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. Robicheaux’s ghosts are, even when he is sober, usually that of Confederate soldiers who haunt his neighbourhood swamps and bayous. I find this an interesting slant because where John Connolly’s Louis will wreak havoc on a person who happens to have the temerity to sport a Confederate pennant on his car aerial, Robicheaux’s relationship with his CSA spectres is much more subtle.

As a Vietnam veteran, he recognises the wordless bond between fighting men everywhere, irrespective of the justice of their causes. One of the magnificent series, which started in 1987 with The Neon Rain was actually called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). When it was filmed as In The Electric Mist (2009) Tommy Lee Jones made a very good fist of Dave Robicheaux, but the director’s take on Dave’s interaction with the long-dead soldiers was treated rather literally by the director Bertrand Tavernier, particularly in the final few moments. Incidentally, I have a poser: name me the link between The Basement Tapes and this movie, and I will buy you a pint.

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Burke’s Louisiana is both intensely poetic and deeply political. In Robicheaux: You Know My Name he writes:

“That weekend, southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.”

robicheaux-1Elsewhere his rage at his own government’s insipid reaction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina rivals his fury at generations of white people who have bled the life and soul out of the black and Creole population of the Louisian/Texas coastal regions. Sometimes the music he hears is literal, like in Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002), but at other times it is sombre requiem that only he can hear:

“…the dead are still with us, like the boys in butternut marching through the flooded cypress at Spanish Lake, and the slaves who beckon us to remove the chains that bind them to the auction block, and all the wandering souls who want to scratch their names on a plaster wall so someone will remember their sacrifice, the struggle that began with the midwife’s slap of life, and their long day’s journey into the grave.”

In the final part of this series, I will look at a trilogy of novels which, for me, are the apotheosis of the way in which crime fiction has characterised the often grim but never less than fascinating persona of The Southern States.

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