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James Lee Burke

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: Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

It is starkly obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of international history that the most brutal and bitterly fought wars tend to be between factions that have, at least in the eyes of someone looking in from the outside, much in common. No such war anywhere has cast such a long shadow as the American Civil War. That enduring shadow is long, and it is wide. In its breadth it encompasses politics, music, literature, intellectual thought, film and – the purpose of this feature – crime fiction.

Charlotte NC 1920x1350There have been many commentators, critics and writers who have explored the US North-South divide in more depth and with greater erudition than I am able to bring to the table, but I only seek to share personal experience and views. One of my sons lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is a very modern city. In the 20th century it was a bustling hive of the cotton milling industry, but as the century wore on it declined in importance. Its revival is due to the fact that at some point in the last thirty years, someone realised that the rents were cheap, transport was good, and that it would be a great place to become a regional centre of the banking and finance industry. Now, the skyscrapers twinkle at night with their implicit message that money is good and life is easy.

Charlotte is, to put it mildly, uneasy about its history – that of a plantation state based on slavery. The main museum in the city is the Levine Museum of the New South. The title is significant, particularly the word ‘New’. Like most modern museums in the digital age, it reaches out, grabs the attention, constantly provides visual and auditory stimulation, and is a delightful place to spend a couple of hours. Its underlying message is one of apology. It says, “OK, over 150 years ago we got things badly wrong, and it took us a long time to repair the damage. But this is us now. We’re deeply sorry for the past, and we are doing everything we can to redress the balance.”

Drive out of Charlotte a few miles and you can visit beautifully preserved plantation houses. Some have the imposing classical facades of Gone With The Wind fame, but others, while substantial and sturdy, are more modest. What they have in common today is that your tour guide will, most likely, be an earnest and eloquent young post-grad woman who will be dismissive about the white folk who lived in the big house, but will have much to say the black folk who suffered under the tyranny of the master and mistress.

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Confederate-Museum-Things-to-Do-Historic-District-Charleston-SC%u200E-By contrast, a day’s drive south will find you in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is energetically preserved in architectural aspic, and if you are seeking people to share penance with you for the misdeeds of the Confederate States, you may struggle. In contrast to the spacious and well-funded Levine Museum in Charlotte, one of Charleston’s big draws is The Confederate Museum. Housed in an elevated brick copy of a Greek temple, it is administered by the Charleston Chapter of The United Daughters of The Confederacy. Pay your entrance fee and you will shuffle past a series of displays that would be the despair of any thoroughly modern museum curator. You definitely mustn’t touch anything, there are no flashing lights, dioramas, or interactive immersions into The Slave Experience. What you do have is a fascinating and random collection of documents, uniforms, weapons and portraits of extravagantly moustached soldiers, all proudly wearing the grey or butternut of the Confederate armies. The ladies who take your dollars for admission all look as if they have just returned from taking tea with Robert E Lee and his family.

William-FaulknerSix hundred words in and what, I can hear you say, has this to do with crime fiction? In part two, I will look at crime writing – in particular the work of James Lee Burke and Greg Iles (but with many other references) – and how it deals with the very real and present physical, political and social peculiarities of the South. A memorable quote to round off this introduction is taken from William Faulkner’s Intruders In The Dust (1948). He refers to what became known as The High Point of The Confederacy – that moment on the third and fateful day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when Lee had victory within his grasp.

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…” *

* Lee made the fatal mistake of ordering General Longstreet’s corps to charge uphill, and over open ground, towards strong Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Known as Pickett’s Charge, it was a catastrophic failure which ended Lee’s invasion of the North. Although Lee enjoyed several subsequent victories he was, from that point on until his surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, fighting a defensive war against Union forces far superior in supplies, armaments and leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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