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.