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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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THE BOY . . . Between the covers

I do love me a good,sweaty Southern Noir, preferably down in Louisiana, with ‘gators thrashing about in the bayou, a storm blowing in from the Gulf, insects the size of golf balls on Kamikaze missions against the fly screens, and folk pushed to the limits of their tolerance by the relentless humidity. Throw in a dash of Cajun music and Acadiana French cursing, and I am set for the night. Tami Hoag’s latest novel ticks all the required boxes.

Hoag, who hails from the relatively temperate zone of Iowa, has created a brilliant husband and wife police partnership in Nick Fourcade and Annie Broussard. The pair first emerged on the printed page as long ago as 1997 in A Thin Dark Line but, of course, crime fiction time isn’t the same as real time, and the two cops are still relatively young and beautiful in Hoag’s latest thriller, The Boy. They are called to a beaten up shack in the sticks beyond the somnolent settlement of Bayou Breaux, and they find a seven year-old boy hacked to death with a knife, while his mother has apparently fled the scene, barefoot and bearing wounds from the same blade that brutalised her son.

Genevieve Gauthier has a past, however. Before settling in Bayou Breaux with son KJ, she has been no stranger to law enforcement. Blessed – or cursed – with an ethereal and vulnerable  beauty designed to act as a magnet to predatory men, she has served jail time for suffocating her first-born child. Fourcade and Broussard are faced with a dazzling and perplexing star burst of inconsistencies as they try to find who killed KJ. Why was Genevieve allowed to escape with relatively minor injuries? Where is KJ’s teenage baby-sitter, Nora? Is her disappearance connected to KJ’s death?

Fourcade and Broussard have a bitter enemy in the shape of Kelvin Dutrow, their boss. As Sheriff, he likes to dress in tactical combat gear, his belt heavy with weapons he has no idea how to use. He likes nothing better than a press conference where he can strike a pose, talk tough and play to the camera. His animosity to the pair reaches fever pitch when they discover that not only does he have a sinister past, but it comes with some highly questionable connections to the bereaved young woman nursing her injuries in the local hospital.

The identity of KJ’s killer is cleverly concealed until the final pages, and there is a blood-soaked denouement which will satisfy even the most hardened Noir fan. The Boy is lurid, yes, and certainly melodramatic, but it is a gripping read which had me canceling other activities right left and centre so that I could get to the end.

The Boy is published by Trapeze and is out as a Kindle on 31stDecember 2018, and will be available in other formats in 2019.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boy-Broussard-Fourcade-Tami-Hoag-ebook/dp/B01MCZ5Y10/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1543917727&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Boy+Tami+Hoag

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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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Coben & Byron

Postman 2HOME by Harlan Coben
The New Jersey based author is one of the bigger beasts in the crime fiction jungle, and he has created one of the more distinctive ‘accidental detectives’ in the genre. Myron Bolitar, the 6 feet 4 inches tall former basketball player, has already won three major awards for his creator, an Edgar (for Fade Away), a Shamus (Drop Shot) and an Anthony (Deal Breaker). In this latest adventure for the sports agent, he tackles the case of a disappeared boy who has, almost inevitably, been assumed dead. But now he shows up after a decade. Is he the real deal, or is he part of a sinister and devious scam? Home will be out in a variety of formats on 22nd September, and you can check the details here.

BODY ON THE BAYOU by Ellen Byron
Away from the city lights we go and we pay a visit to the town of Pelican, Louisiana, and as the title suggests we can expect plenty of alligators, snakes, spoonbills and other assorted fauna who make their homes in the mysterious watery glades. But this isn’t a wildlife Ellen Bdocumentary – it’s a case of murder. Byron (right) reintroduces the characters she created in Plantation Shudders (2015) and this time the Crozat family have another murder on their hands when a woman’s body is found floating on the still waters of their plantation. The publicity tells us that the Crozats have “a gumbo potful of suspects on their hands.” Just to be clear, this isn’t Southern Noir, but more an example of Southern Cosy, and it’s out on 13th September. Find out more here.
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