New Iberia Blues, by James Lee Burke*****

New Iberia Blues is the twenty-second addition to the Dave Robicheaux series, which I will love till the day I die. The Denver Post has called Burke “America’s best novelist,” and the Mystery Writers of America made him a Grand Master. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book will be for sale January 8, 2019. 

The qualities that have made Burke’s writing famous include his lyrical prose, particularly with regard to setting, and a host of memorable characters, often with quirky names. His bad guys are wealthy and often come from Hollywood to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, where the series is set, but he often also features a character or two that works for the wrong side, but is complicated and has redeeming qualities. All of these things hold true for this novel, which is one of Burke’s best. 

Dave Robicheaux is a cop in New Iberia, Louisiana, a senior citizen, thrice widowed and lonesome when our novel begins. Then an old acquaintance comes home after making it big:

Desmond Courmier’s success story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rags-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the grades of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages. That is not meant to be a cynical statement. Desmond’s story was a piece of Americana, assuring us that wealth and a magical kingdom are available to the least of us, provided we do not awaken our own penchant for breaking our heroes on a medieval wheel and revising them later, safely downwind from history.
Desmond was not only born to privation, in the sleeper of a semi in which his mother tied off the umbilical cord and said goodbye forever; he was nurtured by his impoverished grandparents on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation in the back room of a general store that was hardly more than an airless shack. It stood on a dirt road amid treeless farmland where shade and a cold soda pop on the store gallery were considered luxuries, before the casino operators from Jersey arrived and, with the help of the state of Louisiana, convinced large numbers of people that vice is a virtue.

Desmond returns to the bayou in glory after hitting it big in the motion picture industry; he brings with him an unsavory character named Antoine Butterworth. While Dave is welcoming Desmond home, a terrible surprise looms into view: a boat on which a dead woman hangs on a wooden cross. It is plainly visible from Courmier’s deck, and yet he and Butterworth both deny seeing it. And with that, the story commences. 

A complicating factor is that screenwriter Alafair, Dave’s daughter, has begun dating Lou Wexler, a man involved in the film Desmond is making. She is an adult woman, and her father has absolutely no authority in any of her affairs, and yet he feels as if he should. He doesn’t like Wexler, and this creates friction between himself and his daughter.

But at the same time, Dave has plenty of issues of his own. The bottle still calls to him, and sometimes he experiences a ‘dry drunk,’ in which he consumes no alcohol but exhibits many of the same poor impulses as if he had done so. Alafair tells him in exasperation, “Dave, you use a nail gun on the people who love you most.”

One aspect of this book bothers me, and I briefly considered removing a star from the rating but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Nevertheless, the female characters in this novel, and in this entire series, need to be discussed. The very moment a young, nubile newcomer joins the force and is made Dave’s cop partner, I made a note. “Oh Christ, here we go. There’s no way she can exist and not be a romantic partner. Will she walk on the tops of his feet like his first three wives did? [yes.] Will his ears pop when they have sex? [yes.] And will he marry her and make her wife #4?” (Not telling.)

Burke has difficulty creating a female character who is not Dave’s relative and whose sexuality is not prominent or at least discussed. (His boss, Helen, is allowed to be an exception, but in every book we are told that she is a lesbian, as if business couldn’t proceed without this news.) Can we have an important female character whose sex life isn’t an issue, and can we see her developed in other respects? Of course, Burke is hardly alone in this regard, but the rest of what he writes is so outstanding that this one obvious flaw stands out like a ketchup stain on the Mona Lisa. 

Having said that, I can get back to the novel’s more congenial aspects, one of which is Dave’s closest friend, Clete Purcel. Clete can’t be a cop anymore because he doesn’t honor boundaries; however, this quality, combined with his loyalty to Dave, is what makes him so engaging and entertaining. Moreover, it is he who is most effective at pulling Dave away from the bars and the bottle. I cannot think of any literary sidekick that has been better developed across any series ever than Clete. I have a mental movie that runs when I read this series, and in my mind, Dave looks like a younger version of the author, and Clete—I only just realized the other day—shows up in my head as a sunburned Rodney Dangerfield. 

One other regard in which Burke consistently shines is his ability to create tragicomic side characters, and Smiley Wimple is unforgettable. Smiley is not all there, until he is. In fact, he may surface from beneath your bed. Smiley works as an assassin, but he also has standards. He needs to believe he is taking out a bad guy, or he won’t take the job. Smiley is fond of children, and he likes ice cream. Who knows? He might want to be your friend. And while I am on the subject—there’s some graphic material here, as is true for all of the books in this series; don’t count on this as meal time or bedtime reading. In fact, you may want a few extra lights turned on when you pick this one up. 

Lastly, this book can be read as a stand-alone. I entered the series halfway in when I was given a free paperback copy of The Tin Roof Blowdown; you can enter the series anywhere you prefer. However, if you love a complex, literary mystery and can tolerate a fair amount of violence, you will probably like it well enough to go find the rest and read them too. 

Masterfully written, and highly recommended. 

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

The Line That Held Us, by David Joy****

thelinethatheldusDarl Moody and Calvin Hooper have been best friends forever, and so when Darl has the worst kind of accident, he knows who to turn to. You know what they say real friends will help you bury. The body in question is Carol Brewer; Darl was hunting out of season, and when he glimpsed something moving through the woods he thought it was a wild pig. Turned out he was wrong; turned out to be Carol, poaching ginseng on Coon Coward’s land. But you can’t bring the dead back to life, and you sure can’t call the cops for something like this. Carol is Dwayne’s brother, after all. Dwayne is a huge man, half- crazy and rattlesnake mean. There are no bygones in Dwayne Brewer’s world. There is only revenge.

My thanks go to G.P. Putnam and Net Galley for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

“I’d be lucky if all he did was come after me,” Darl said, “But knowing him, knowing everything he’s done, you and me both know it wouldn’t end there. I bet he’d come after my mama and my little sister and my niece and nephews and anybody else he could get his hands on. That son of a bitch is crazy enough to dig up my daddy’s bones just to set him on fire.”

“[Calvin tells him] “You’re talking crazy, Darl.

“Am I?”

So Carol disappears…for awhile. But Dwayne won’t be satisfied till he knows what has happened to his brother, who is all the family he has left. Once he finds out, of course all hell breaks loose.
Joy is a champion at building visceral characters and using setting to develop them further. I know of no living writer better at describing hard core rural poverty to rival anything the Third World can offer:

“The house had been built a room at a time from scrap wood salvaged and stolen. Nothing here was permanent and as each addition rotted away, a new one was hammered together from plywood and bent nails off another side so that slowly through the decades, the five-room shanty shifted around the property like a droplet of water following the path of least resistance. Red Brewer was no carpenter. Chicken coops were built better. So were doghouses. But this place had been the roof over their heads and had kept the rain off the Brewer clan’s backs all Dwayne’s miserable life.”

The murderous rage of Dwayne Brewer contrasts with the tender, poignant love that exists between Calvin and his girlfriend Angie, who has just learned she is pregnant. Calvin understands throughout all of this that he has a lot to lose, and this makes the conflict between Dwayne and Calvin a more unequal one.

I would have liked to see Angie better developed, and I blanched a bit at the line where she thinks that the only important thing is what’s growing in her uterus. But the story isn’t really about Angie, and I have seen Joy develop a strong female character in one of his earlier books. I hope to see more of that in his future work.

Meanwhile, the passage where Dwayne visits Coon Coward—some four or five pages long—just about knocks me over. This is what great writing looks like.

I struggled a bit with the ending, and this is where the fifth star comes off. The first 96 percent of this tale is flat-out brilliant, but I feel as if Joy pulls the ending a bit, and I can’t see why. None of the rest of the book points us toward this conclusion.

Last, the reader should know that there is a great deal of truly grisly material here. We have a torture scene; we have numerous encounters with a decaying corpse. If you are a person that does most of your reading during mealtime, this might not be the best choice.

For those that love excellent literary fiction or Southern fiction, this story is recommended. It will be released August 14, 2018, but you can pre-order it now.