New Orleans

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.”


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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THRILL KILL … Between the covers

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Thrill KillThrill Kill is a brisk, no-nonsense police procedural thriller set amidst the hurley burley of Carnival season in New Orleans. Homicide cop Quentin ‘Q’ Archer sets out to bring to justice a serial killer whose calling card is a can of aerosol coolant – tradename ‘Chill’ – beside the bodies of his victims. Archer burns the midnight oil to solve the crime, but it is not the only thing on his mind. He is not a native of The Big Easy, but a displaced person from Detroit, where his police career became violently complex when his wife was mown down by a car, and Archer was forced to turn against his own family in a personal war against police corruption, drugs and racketeering.

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gives us a vivid and totally unsentimental account of the brand known as NOLA – New Orleans, Louisiana. We see a Mardi Gras which is joyous, celebratory, but also perverse and venal in the extreme. Central to the story is Archer’s relationship with a young woman Solange Cordray. Cordray is described in the publicist’s gush as a “voodoo queen”, which does neither her nor the book justice. Cordray certainly makes a living out of selling charms, herbal remedies and artifacts associated with the supernatural, but she also has a gift which can prove unwelcome and a burden to her – she has second sight.

Archer is, initially, completely sceptical about what Solange Cordray senses and feels, but he is conflicted by his growing physical attraction to her. Meanwhile, the killings continue, and it slowly dawns on Archer that they are not the work of a single murderer, but the result of a looming turf war between rival gangs. As ever, drugs are the main commodity, and their transit from South America to the streets of New Orleans is as clear as day, but the police simply do not have the resources to tackle the flow.

Even more worrying is the trade in human beings. The tragic irony is that much of America’s prosperity, particularly in the Deep South, was historically based on such a trade, but the new merchandise does not consist of strapping men brought in to pick cotton, but young – sometimes terribly young – women who are swept up from poverty in places like Mexico and Ecuador with the promise that they will soon be earning enough money to send home to their struggling families. In reality, the jobs consist of – at best – stripping but, more usually, outright prostitution. The money they earn is taken from them, and not one nickel, not one dime goes anywhere but into the pockets of the pimps.

DBDon Bruns himself (right) is an interesting character. As well as the first book in the Quentin Archer series Casting Bones, he has written two other series, Caribbean and Stuff. He describes himself as “a musician, song writer, advertising guru, painter, cook, stand-up comic and novelist who has no idea what he wants to be when he grows up.” His music is mainstream country, but with a little twist of this and that to spice things up. You can hear samples of his music here and I was amused to see the wonderfully titled Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth I’m Kissin’ You Goodbye as part of his repertoire. I always thought it was a spoof title, rather like If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? and You Were Only A Splinter As I Slid Down The Bannister Of Life, but I am clearly wrong!

With a help from the insights of Solange Cordray, and a good-hearted stripper, Archer sets up a sting to bring down the main characters in the turf war between the rival gangs, and in doing so rips away the drapes that have been concealing the fact that the whole dreadful enterprise of importing Colombian Marching Powder and young flesh is controlled by those who are right at the top of the political tree. Thrill Kill is published by Severn House and is available here.

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