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.

Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly****

everydeadthing“Our ancestors were not wrong in their superstitions; there is reason to fear the dark.”

This is the first entry of the Charlie Parker series, and I recently read and reviewed the newest one, so it is interesting to go back and see how the series begins. Thank you to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for an honest review.

The story commences with flashbacks to the brutal murder and mutilation of Parker’s wife and daughter. I have to confess that it went over the top for me and at times was too grim to be an enjoyable read. This newly released edition begins with introductory notes by the author in which he acknowledges that many readers also felt this way, so I know I am not alone. Everyone has a threshold. But I went into the story knowing that I want to read this series and that although it will always remain gritty and violent, it won’t always be this harsh, so I moved on, and I am glad I did.

The fact is, Connolly is an outstanding writer.

Parker is a shipwreck of a human being, a former cop with a sorrowful heart and not much to lose. He is determined to find the psychopath that killed his wife and child, and it appears that the same killer has taken a woman named Catherine. Her phone records show numerous calls, shortly before her disappearance, to the tiny southern town where she was born and raised. He grabs his wallet and heads south with two terrifyingly competent assistants, Angel and Louis, guys that are shady but loyal, and strong as hell. They are also a couple, and this adds an interesting twist, not to mention crushing a stereotype. Actually, these two characters are my favorites in this story, and I especially enjoy the scene in the auto shop.

Another wonderful feature is the swamp witch in the bayou.

Some aspects of this novel seem a bit derivative, in particular the long cast of characters with unusual names seems a lot like James Lee Burke. Ed McBain, iconic author of the 87th Precinct series, has a prominent character named Fat Ollie, a name Connolly uses for one of his characters here.

But there’s no denying the lyrical quality to the work that is entirely Connolly’s own, and as I have already seen, it just gets better from here. The plotting is complex, tight, and intense. It’s a strong debut.

Those that love good mysteries that run on the gritty side will want to read this series. You can read them out of order; I started with the fourteenth and didn’t feel there were enough missing pieces to prevent my understanding the story line. On the other hand, there’s nobody out there that can write as fast as we can read, and so why not start at the top and run all the way through the series?

This re-released edition of Every Dead Thing is for sale now.

The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke *****

theglassrainbowIf you are new to the series, do yourself a favor and go all the way back. This book is #18 of 20. Start with The Neon Rain and work your way forward. You won’t be one bit sorry.

For those who wonder whether this remarkable author whose work began in the 1960’s still has the stuff it takes to write Edgar and Pulitzer-nominee worthy material, the fact is that if anything, he’s even better. He is one of a very small number of mystery and crime thriller authors that can juggle the bad guys and storyline that is related to the crime under investigation and weave them inextricably and seamlessly with the continuing story of friendship, of familial devotion, and of personal ethics. Besides Sue Grafton, I have never seen a mystery writer develop character more fully or completely without missing a beat, and do it in an ongoing manner over decades without any consistency popping up to remind us that time has passed and the author’s memory is imperfect. Either Burke has an amazing memory or an amazing editor; one way or the other, he is an unmatchable writer.

The Glass Rainbow finds Dave still living in his home in New Iberia with Molly, Snuggs, and that almost supernaturally long-lived raccoon, Tripod. Alafair is home from Reed College, and she is dating a very bad man. Kermit Abelard, the man Alafair has fallen for, has contacts in the literary world that Alafair has been told will help launch her career; but people like Robert Weingart and Layton Blanchet are not in the world to be guardian angels to the young, the naïve, or the vulnerable. In fact, the opposite is true:

“ Sex was not a primary issue in their lives. Money was. When it comes to money, power and sex are secondary issues. Money buys both of them, always.”

This gibes with what I also believe is true of the vast majority of very wealthy people, and that is one of the reasons Burke’s work resounds in such a personally satisfying way for me. But it’s really more than a philosophical affinity; it is also unmistakably about character development.

In many novels, whether they are mystery, historical fiction, or general literature, there are plot devices that pop up over and over and over again. A threat against the protagonist’s family member is as old as the mountains, and as tired as a traveling salesman who’s been on his feet for three weeks straight. In other words, I see it coming and I groan. Once in awhile, if the novel was already not going well, I abandon the book then and there.

Another is alcoholism. A lot of writers know that there are a tremendous number of recovering alcoholics, not to mention people who love them, among their readership. I can relate to it. There are so many drunks and former drunks in my family that I won’t even have hooch in my house. I am a single-household Carrie Nation. Get it out of here! But hell if I want to read about it. I am already sick of alcoholism, and I do not need it in my fiction. Do. Not.

Cancer is another one. I won’t rant. You get the idea.

But because Burke’s writing is so deeply personal, he can (and does) use all of those above devices at one point or another and sometimes I don’t even notice that I am accepting his premise until halfway into the book. During the first three books of his series, which he has said in interviews were a trilogy in which Robicheaux sorts out his alcoholism before he is good for much else, I got tired of it but I kept on turning the pages.
The magic that makes his writing so exceptional is that he draws the reader in deeply enough to persuade us, at least for portions of the time that we are reading his novel, that we are part of his family. Alafair is not just his daughter. She is part of our family. We have to watch out for her. The boomer generation reads this stuff, and a lot of us have raised teens and young adults who have made some mis-steps that either were dangerous or appeared to be, and we spent our fair share of sleepless nights, so when Dave rolls out of bed after failing to sleep and goes to sit in the kitchen until his newly-adult daughter shows up to home, we put on our bathrobes and trudge into the kitchen with him. We blink drowsily and pull up a chair. Or we follow him on out to the porch.

And we don’t like these people Alafair is hanging out with. When we get older, we become adept, often through cruel experience, at spotting the phony altruism that these people slide over their personas like cheap sparkling hubcaps with metallic spinners on an old jalopy. When Layton dies, Burke reflects to Clete:

“I think Layton was too greedy to kill himself. He was the kind of guy who clings to the silverware when the mortician drags him out of his home.”

Later, when trying to get a handle on Abelard and his involvement in a case to which Robicheaux has been assigned, he and Clete attend a charity gala:

“ The guests at the banquet and fundraiser were an extraordinary group. Batistianos from Miami were there, as well as friends of Anastasio Somoza. The locals, if they could be called that, were a breed unto themselves. They were porcine and sleek and combed and brushed, and they jingled when they walked.”

Later in the story one of them speaks down to Robicheaux, telling him that his working class roots are repugnant:

“You may have gone to college, Mr. Robicheaux, but you wear your lack of breeding like a rented suit.”

Hey. That’s not a rented suit. It’s his own damn suit, and he should wear it proudly.

And thus I find myself defending him as I might a brother, a cousin, an uncle. He’s not just one of the good guys; he’s one of my good guys.

Some reviewers say that Burke has a particular kind of book he writes that becomes redundant over time. I disagree. His Robicheaux series no more becomes redundant than a human life does. Is my sister’s personality, my cousin’s, my son’s and my daughter’s, consistent over time for the most part, though of course we all grow and evolve in certain ways? Oh yes yes yes. And am I tired of them? Do I feel as if I would prefer to move on to others who may be more full of surprises? Not in the least.

Just as we make new friends, I love reading new novelists, whether they are merely new to me, or just breaking into the field.

But there is nothing quite like an old friend or a beloved aunt; nobody and nothing can replace these.

And thus it is with the novels written by James Lee Burke.