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.

Fidelity, by Jan Fedarcyk***-****

fidelityRetired FBI agent Jan Fedarcyk makes her debut with this intense spy novel, and it is bound to keep the reader guessing and turning pages deep into the night. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received for review purposes. I rate this story with 3.5 stars and round it upward.

The selling point for the new reader of what is destined to become the Kay Malloy series, is that the author has spent 25 years in the FBI and knows what she’s talking about. Though she reminds the reader that a lot of the FBI agent’s job is done at a desk sifting through endless forms to fill out and reports to write and not much of what we see on TV, we also know that she can spot an implausible situation a mile away and not go there or do that.

So the initial question that came to me was whether someone that’s worked for the Feds for a quarter century still has enough imagination left to write interesting fiction, and now I can tell you straight up that Fedarcyk does, and she can, and she did. I like the level of complexity, which is literate without being impossible to follow. The reader will want to give her story full attention; nobody can watch television and read this book during the ads. It’s well paced and the suspense is built in a masterful manner.

Characterization comes up a little short, and I can imagine that this will be her key focus in writing future books in the series. Kay is so darn perfect, and I never feel I know her deeply, despite the discussion of her past and how she is motivated by it. We see her tempted to use her position for a very small, somewhat justifiable personal reason briefly, but she is nonetheless something of a cardboard hero all the way through. Likewise, the Russian spies are big, blocky bad guys, thugs that drink Vodka. The spy novel tradition has been honored, but I would like to see more layers to these characters as we move forward. The ending, while it surprises me to some extent, is not one that the reader had a reasonable chance of guessing, but to some extent that’s true of a lot of espionage thrillers.  What might be really cool would be to see an espionage version of Kay’s own Moriarty come into play.

As is always the case for me when I read espionage thrillers, police procedurals, and other novels that involve heroic cops, I have to construct a mental barricade between what I see in real life and what I am willing to believe when I read fiction. One of Fedarcyk’s characters snorts in derision about the time when people were willing to die for Marxism, and I have news: some of us still would. But for a fun ride, I am delighted to suspend reality and buy the premise until the book is done.

One area where I struggled—and to be honest, I don’t know whether anyone else will or not—was with two characters, first Luis, whose last name isn’t used very much, and then Torres, whose first name doesn’t get used much either. This reviewer has taught more than one student named Luis Torres, so this may factor into my confusion about 75% of the way through the story when I realize that these have to be two separate people, but for awhile I am convinced that Uncle Luis Torres has mentored her into the field, and so when the story arc is near its peak, I have to go back and reread some of the novel to be certain I knew who is who. Luis is the uncle; Torres is the agent and mentor; they’re two separate guys.

All told, this is a promising start to what is sure to be an engaging series. The world needs to see more strong women in fiction, and so I welcome Kay Malloy and look forward to seeing future installments. A fine debut, and it’s for sale now.

The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz

thepassengerLisa Lutz is best known for her series, The Spellman Files, which I confess I have not read or watched on television. I came to this stand-alone story brand new, and can tell you that it’s fresh and original, a real kick in the pants. Thank you Simon and Schuster, and thank you too, Net Galley, for the DRC. I picked this thing up and then hardly put it down, but my review had to wait awhile in order to be within the courtesy-window of no more than three months from publication. And it gave me some time to think.

Here’s our premise: Tanya Pitts is a married woman until her husband, Frank, falls down the stairs and dies, and then she is a widow. We don’t know if he had a heart attack; if he tripped and hit his head or broke his neck; all we know is that Tanya is innocent of killing him. Yet instead of staying put, phoning 911, and sitting back to collect the life insurance and either keep the house or sell it, she chooses to run. Now why would she do such a thing?

Soon we learn a little more. The problem is that Tanya is not Tanya. She won’t stand up to a thorough vetting, which the police are likely to pursue as due diligence. Soon she becomes Amelia, but that’s not who she is either. We get tantalizing little bursts of memory and the occasional unwise-but-addictive e-mail sent to someone from her real life. As the story progresses, we get the sense that she must have done something pretty horrific in order to be so obsessively unknowable, so carefully, fastidiously disguised.

There were several times when I thought the protagonist did things that were stupid for a woman on the run, but we learn, over the course of time, just how young she really is. By the end of the story, her various dumb mistakes make total sense, because very young people, especially when tossed out into the breeze without much of a parachute, do make a lot of mistakes they won’t repeat when they are older and smarter.

While she is trying to bury herself as Amelia Keen, former-Tanya meets a barkeep who goes by “Blue”. Blue takes her in for awhile; it seems Blue has a secret or two of her own. This section absolutely crackles, and is reminiscent of Thelma and Louise for a time. When she is cornered by a terrifying man referred to as “The Accountant”, a guy with a gun, an equally nasty partner, and a cold hard gaze, Blue comes to the rescue and she wants answers in exchange.

“’You have a few enemies, don’t you?’
‘Guess so.’
‘Considering I just committed a double murder for you, I think an explanation is due.’

Blue gives her a new identity and sends her packing, and so Amelia-now-Debra is on her own again. The plotting is so taut in places that in one place, when she jerks her car back onto the switchback mountain road just before it goes over a cliff, my notes to myself simply say, “Shit!”

The quality of the novel is a trifle uneven, and this is why the fifth star, which looked like a slam-dunk for the first third of the story, is denied. But I loved the start, and I loved the ending. In fact, I loved almost all of it. There were some logistical glitches in the Wyoming portion of the story, in particular with regard to the private school where she passes herself off as a teacher for a time that makes a portion of the story just not work. It’s the writer’s misfortune, perhaps, to be reviewed by a teacher, but there are so many of us out here, and we sure do read.

That said, our protagonist has a tendency to shift her location quickly, and so before long, this problematic passage is in her rearview mirror, like just about everything else. And in no time, the author is back on rock-solid ground.

The ending left me with my jaw on the floor, and it will probably do the same for you. When this nifty psychological thriller hits the shelves March 1, you will want to have your copy already ordered. What a great way to forget the nasty chill of late winter.

Do it.