A New Cathedral, by James Lee Burke*****

A Private Cathedral is the twenty-third in the immensely popular Dave Robicheaux series, which began in the early 1980s. James Lee Burke has been called “America’s Best Novelist” by the Denver Post, and his books have been made into movies. Lucky me, I read this one free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Fans of this series—and there are many—will recognize all of Burke’s signature elements. Set in New Iberia, Louisiana, a small working class enclave about an hour from New Orleans, we find the usual wealthy, sleazy bad guys, in this case the Shondell family and the Balangie family; their victims, ordinary people with no money that scrape by the best they can; a pair of grizzly murders; and in this instance, a case of human trafficking. There’s always a woman or two ready to fling herself into Dave’s arms, even though he and Clete are supposedly getting old, and as usual, one of the women stands on the tops of his feet before she seduces him, or vice versa. (This has got to be some sort of private joke or reference on the author’s part, because you know that a writer with this level of skill cannot be inadvertently ascribing the identical quirky behavior to all of his protagonist’s romantic interests across over three decades of a series.)

And of course, best of all perhaps, we have Dave’s fiercely loyal best friend, Clete Purcell, a man that looks “like an albino ape” and whose impulse control is even worse than Dave’s, at least most of the time. He shows up in his pink Cadillac wearing his signature porkpie hat, and I smile. I can’t help it. Clete does this to me every single time, and I’ll bet a whole lot of other readers feel just the same way.

                “He was the trickster of folklore, a modern Sancho Panza, a quasi-psychotic jarhead who did two tours in Vietnam and came home with the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts and memories he shared with no one. Few people knew the real Clete Purcel or the little boy who lived inside him, the lonely child of an alcoholic milkman who made his son kneel all night on rice grains and whipped him regularly with a razor strop…Nor did they know the NOPD patrolman who wept when he couldn’t save the child he wrapped in a blanket, ran through flames, and crashed through a second story window with, landing on top of a Dumpster…He hated evil and waged war against it everywhere he found it. I sometimes wondered if he was an archangel in disguise, one with strings of dirty smoke rising from his wings, a full-fledged participant in fighting the good fight of Saint Paul. “

My sole complaint, a key one I probably wouldn’t give any other writer a pass on, is the way the author deals with his female characters. All the women and girls are mothers, whores, lovers, or children, and in some cases more than one of the above. No woman comes into the stories on the merit of her occupation, her character, or her abilities, aside from Helen, a long-running character that is exempted by virtue or being a lesbian and androgynous in appearance. (God forbid she be gorgeous and gay, or gorgeous and straight and completely sexually uninterested in Dave.) But the fact is, Burke has been writing and publishing great novels since 1965, and now he’s an 83 year old author and it seems unfair to expect him to change direction with regard to his female characters, or to suddenly regard them as equals in all respects rather than to nurture the whole pedestal package.

Moving on.

The story commences with Dave suspended from the sheriff’s department, and he’s behaving badly, embarking on a series of “dry drunks,” a term used liberally throughout this series and that I’ve never seen or heard of anywhere else. He’s so far out of line that Clete has to reel him back, when more often it’s the reverse. A teenager named Isolde is being sold by her parents, and Dave is attempting to rescue her. But it’s a useless endeavor because there is so much money and power buffering the offenders. Meanwhile, Clete is kidnapped and hung upside down and tortured by a being that seems otherworldly to him—mostly because it is. And this is a departure for Burke, a good one, as it turns out.

Those familiar with the series and the author know that redemption is at the core of every story he writes, and given the amount of mystic imagery that appears in his prose, it isn’t a long stretch to go from imagined spiritual beings to actual ones, which is what he does here. And I can only bow in awe at a writer—even one with residual sexist attitudes—that can take a long-running, iconic series like this one, a series that has run for more than 30 years, and decide to expand it across genres now. This would be remarkable for anyone, but for an octogenarian, it’s jaw-dropping.

I also enjoy the way he develops the side character, Father Julian, who is heroic and who pursues pedophiles and brings them to justice. Way to fight stereotypes.

I love the ending.

Highly recommended to Burke’s many fans, and to new readers as well.

A heartfelt tribute, featuring a lot of famous writers:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cwNHIsoHG0

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. 

Robicheaux, by James Lee Burke*****

Robicheaux“You ever hear of the Bobbsey Twins from homicide?”

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are back. For those that have never read the work of James Lee Burke, it’s time; for those that have missed his two best-loved characters, this new release will be as welcome, as cool and refreshing as a Dr. Pepper with cherries and ice. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for this honest review.

Robicheaux is a Cajun cop from New Iberia, a small town an hour from New Orleans. Southern Louisiana, he tells us in his confidential narrative, has become “the Walmart of the drug culture.” He is under tremendous pressure; grieving the loss of his wife, Molly in an auto accident, he blacks out one drunken night, the same night that a murder occurs. Dave was in the area, and he cannot say he didn’t commit the murder, because he can’t recall anything. That’s why they call it a black out. His daughter Alafair returns from the Pacific Northwest to help her father pull himself together; she tells him he didn’t do it because murder is not in him. Clete says the same thing. But Dave is a haunted man, and he wonders what he is capable of.

To cap it all off, Dave has been assigned to investigate the rape of Lowena Broussard. The story doesn’t gel, and he wonders if it actually happened.

All of the fictional ingredients that make up Burke’s fictional gumbo are here: slick politicians, mobsters, thugs, and sociopaths. We also have people from Hollywood, whose casually entitled behavior and attitudes are anathema to Robicheaux and probably also to Burke. Alafair has been hired to write a screen play, and lascivious comments directed her way from those in charge of the film make Dave see red.

Clete figures prominently here; as longtime readers already know, Clete “would not only lay down his life for a friend, he would paint the walls with his friend’s enemies.” At one point a couple of thugs follow him into the men’s room at a local bar, and we fear they will kill him. Instead, “Maximo and Juju went to the hospital, and Clete went to the can.”

Burke has long been admired for the way he renders setting. A creative writing teacher could assign this book, because examples of how to render a place in a way that is original and immediate can be found by flipping to almost any page. But there’s more than that here. The dialogue crackles. The narrative is luminous at times, philosophical at others (are the Confederates the new Nazis?) and hilarious here and there as well. It’s enough to make ordinary writers sigh; I may write, and you may write, but neither of us will ever write like this.

There’s also plenty of fascinating Cajun culture here, and it’s so vastly different from anything I have known in my long life, most of it spent in the Pacific Northwest, that I find myself rereading passages. There’s a travelogue feel to parts of it that is unmatched anywhere else.

Lastly, I have to tell you that this story holds an extra element of suspense for me. These characters were originally crafted in the 1960s, and our author is growing old. I wonder as I read whether he intends to kill his heroes, one or both, in order to prevent future pretenders from usurping them. Every time I find Clete in danger, my heart nearly stops. I know that Dave has to make it all or most of the way through this book because it’s written in the first person, but Clete can go any damn minute.

Will Burke pull the plug?

Obviously I am not going to tell you anything more; the quotes you see above all occur early. But for those that can read work that is gritty and at times violent—I had to take little breaks now and then—there is no better fiction anywhere.

Note to the reader: there are some of Burke’s older books on YouTube in the form of audio books. Authorized? Unauthorized? Who knows, but for now at least, there they are.