Monday, November 6, 2017
Book Review: "Robicheaux" by James Lee Burke
He is one of my favorite authors of all time, and having met him at a book signing, he's a warm, gracious, and friendly guy, too. Simply put, I'm a fan.
My favorite of Burke's characters is Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana police detective. He is fiercely loyal, sensitive, and immensely flawed, which makes him one of the most fascinating (and at times depressing) characters to read about. In Robicheaux, Burke's 21st novel featuring his most popular character, Dave is struggling with the death of his wife Molly in a car accident. Her sudden loss has ratcheted up his alcoholic cravings, his nightmares of his time in Vietnam, and his visions of Confederate soldiers.
"Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the world? Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth Ward of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of 'Darling Nelly Gray' and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side."
When the crushing sadness wrecks his prized sobriety, suddenly Dave becomes more of a danger to himself and others, as his anger at his wife's death threatens to overwhelm him. Then, in the midst of a murder investigation, he discovers that he may have been the one who killed the victim, the man who was responsible for Molly's death. As his boss and former partner, Sheriff Helen Soileau, fights to figure out whether to pity Dave or fire him, Dave and his best friend, the irascible Clete Purcel, try to figure out Dave's whereabouts during the murder, and whether his melancholy was strong enough to turn to violence.
As with any Robicheaux novel, Dave and Clete find themselves entangled in a web of unsavory characters, each one with a grudge against Dave and/or Clete, and each one burdened with their own baggage. From Mafia enforcer and aspiring film producer Fat Tony Nemo and his enforcers, novelist Levon Broussard and his troubled wife Rowena, to the enigmatic and possibly dangerous local boy-made-good (or did he) Jimmy Nightingale, who aspires to political power, Dave and Clete need to figure out just exactly how far each is willing to defend themselves from those who appear to be encroaching on what they believe to be theirs. Throw in a dangerous contract killer and a police detective with his own issues, and you have a mess of epic proportions, which the infamous "Bobbsey Twins from Homicide" will be lucky to survive.
Burke does an excellent job of depicting characters whose good qualities are often outweighed by their flaws, but he doesn't immediately condemn everyone. Dave struggles with questions of morality, mortality, and loyalty, and while he is sworn to uphold the law, if those he cares about are harmed, he isn't above enacting his own code of justice. While it seems as if everyone out there has an axe to grind with Dave and Clete, issues which often get visited upon those the two care about, their first thoughts are always protecting those they love and the city they care about.
"Like most of us who subscribe to the egalitarian traditions of Jefferson and Lincoln, I did not want to believe that a basically likable man could, with indifference and without provocation, commit deeds that were not only wicked but destroyed the lives of defenseless people."
While I've enjoyed nearly everything that Burke has written, I love his books featuring Dave Robicheaux the most. These characters have come to feel like family through the years, and reading about them again and again is so pleasurable. And not a book goes by without Burke's imagery taking my breath away. When I first visited New Orleans years after I started reading his books, it felt so real, so accurate to the portraits he has painted through the years.
Robicheaux isn't a quick-moving caper packed with action and thrills. While there is some terrific suspense and a little bit of gruesome violence, this is a book that makes you think and makes you feel rather than raises your pulse. None of Burke's characters are perfect, but they are so complex, so thought-provoking, it doesn't matter that you may be troubled by some of their actions.
Once again, it is an immense pleasure to read a book by James Lee Burke. While at times he switches between the different series he has created, I hope another Robicheaux book is imminent, but I'll be happy to read whatever the master delivers next.
NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!