Robicheaux by James Lee Burke
Welcome back, old friend. Now in his twenty-first novel, part-time detective Dave Robicheaux is a character readers can count on. A walking conundrum, both saint and sinner, he will get into trouble and extricate himself. He is loyal to his friends, and to no one more than Clete Purcel, who returns that loyalty even when he is doing things he knows will provoke bad guys. Both are men you want on your side — neither should be against you — and the two of them must team up in order to prevail. Both suffer from demons that drive their actions. The end justifies the means, and sometimes the means can be rather extreme.
Robicheaux loves his novelist daughter Alafair and his wife Molly more than anything (note: Burke’s real daughter is Alafair Burke, also a highly respected novelist). But Molly has been dead for three months, having been t-boned in a violent car accident. While she is alleged to have been at fault, one of Robicheaux’s nefarious friends suggests that is not the case and promises to take care of the man who hit her.
Robicheaux is the epitome of Southern Gothic, filled with doom and gloom, violence, grotesque characters, a pervasive sense of alienation, and a palpable tension between its realistic and supernatural elements. “I believed I had just looked into the eyes of someone who was genuinely mad and probably not diagnosable,” Burke writes in one scene, “the kind of idealist who sets sail on the Pequod and declares war on the universe.” Or, consider the novel’s opening sentence: “Like an early nineteenth-century poet, when I have melancholy moments and feel the world is too much for us and that late and soon we lay waste to our powers in getting and spending, I’m forced to pause and reflect upon my experiences with the dead and the hold they exert on our lives.” Later, as a character dies, we learn, “the light was still in her eyes, like tiny chips of a diamond frozen in time. But there was no movement on her body except for the second hand on her watch.”
Images of fog and mist, darkness and rain, death, and ghosts inhabit the terrain of this novel, where reality is bent like refracted light in a pastiche of magical realism. Robicheaux sees Confederate soldiers marching in the mist and is haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, all while immersed in a real-life fight with the demon that is his own alcoholism. He is a detective in New Iberia Parish near New Orleans who investigates murders and interacts with some of the worst characters who inhabit the pages of a novel. Like life, people and events in the novel are complicated and haunted by memories and unresolved issues, and not everything works out in a neat ending.
Many related plot elements snake through the novel, compelling the reader forward. Molly is dead; the man who hit her car is killed and Robicheaux, in a drunken stupor, may have killed him. The Jeff Davis Eight refers to the unresolved murders of eight prostitutes, a crime that will never be a closed case for Robicheaux and Purcel. There is a sorry father who beats his son and may have committed a number of murders, and there is a potentially dirty cop. And finally, since we are in Louisiana, there must be a crook in the vein of Huey Long running for public office.
Burke has created two anti-heroes in Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel who are deeply flawed yet totally self-aware of who they are and what they must do. And, no matter what they do, the reader still cheers for them. The bad guys are a different matter: Smiley is evil with a tortured past, but retains a limited sense of honor. Tony the Squid is “a gargantuan blob who has to spread his cheeks across a padded bench or two chairs pushed together” and may be responsible for any number of murders.
Burke’s Robicheaux novels and their memorable characters inhabit Louisiana, especially New Orleans, New Iberia, and Jeff Davis Parish. One can feel the miasma rising from the swamps where the Confederate dead walk, both a reference to one of his best novels and a social commentary on the mindset of the area.