James Lee Burke has reached a grand old age, but every new novel shows us that the light shines ever brighter, and his indignation at injustice, cruelty and corruption – expressed through the deeds of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell – is still white hot. A Private Cathedral is a mesmerising showcase for the author’s poetic style, his awareness of the all-encompassing power of the Louisiana landscape, and his sense that history – the dead and their deeds – hasn’t gone anywhere, but is right there, hiding in the shadows. There is music – always music – to spark our senses and remind us that a three minute pop song can be just as potent a memory trigger as Proust’s Madeleines.
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.
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.
The 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.
It 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.