James Lee Burke, Orion, 2018, ISBN 978 1 4091 7646 6, 445pp
For those of us who are long-term readers of James Lee Burke the characters in this novel will need little introduction.
The Dave Robichaux novels stretch back to 1987’s The Neon Rain. But James Lee Burke is now into his 80s and one gets the feeling that this may be his last Robichaux novel (it is the 21st in the series) if not his last novel. If it is his last novel then he is going out with a corker. This is a great read as, indeed, are all his novels. James Lee Burke’s daughter, Alafair Burke, also has a new novel out; The Wife which I picked up the other day in Moruya Books. Alafair appears in Burke’s novels; I often wonder whether she minds. Her writing is in a very different, but equally engaging style than that of her father. I will review The Wife when I have read it; that is, assuming it makes its way to the top of the reading heap. At present it is still in its paper bag.
I think the reason that I like James Lee Burke is that, no matter how dark his subject matter (and it is not always dark), he paints a landscape that I have become familiar with through his books. I am sure I have known his partner Clete Purcell forever. I have driven with Dave Robichaux as he heads west through City Park on the 610 and I have lived through his relationship with his boss, Helen Soileau.
Burke has a way with description that is strangely alluring. He will describe something with a simile that appears to have too much information. Here’s an example:
“Flying fish broke from the bay’s surface and sailed above the water like pink-gilded, winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability. The salt spray breaking on my bow was cold and fresh and smelled of resilience and the mysterious powers the earth contains.”
He has a sense of humour that he allows to surface occasionally. This book contains an Australian character, Rowena Broussard. At one point she says to Robichaux “You’re a hard-nosed wanker, aren’t you?” Any of us who have worked with Americans will know that the word “wanker” is not a word used by Americans. The dialogue continues with Robichaux asking “What’s a wanker?” She gives him a description that you could imagine coming from an Australian sheila. I leave you to find it on page 138.
The plot of Robichaux is well thought through and it romps along at a fair pace. Robichaux finds himself in a position that his readers would not expect. He confronts the man who killed his wife in a car accident and then comes to from an alcoholic relapse to find that he may have murdered him. Robichaux is not a perfect human being; one of the attractions of Burke’s writing is that his characters are all flawed. Robichaux struggles with alcoholism, depression and the residual trauma of fighting in Vietnam. Because he is a potential suspect he is pulled off the case and put to work instead on a rape case which, of course, turns out to be connected to the murder for which he is a suspect. He enlists the help of his long-time friend and private investigator, Clete Purcell. Purcell participates in every vice that Robichaux tries to avoid: he is almost as important a character as Robichaux himself. This is more than a story about finding out whodunnit. As Burke tells the story, through the person of Robichaux, each Robichaux and Purcell face their own demons and uncertainties. There are sub-plots aplenty. His daughter, Alafair, is involved with a movie which presages some of the characteristics of the Weinstein scandal.
This book is a masterpiece from a great, even brilliant, storyteller. It is a page-turner; there is poetry on every page. It makes me want to go back to The Neon Rain and read all 21 Robichaux novels again. You should read it.