Sunday, December 29, 2019

Book Review: "The New Iberia Blues" by James Lee Burke

"For good or bad, my preoccupation with death and the past had defined much of my life, and a long time ago I had made my separate peace with the world and abandoned any claim on reason or normalcy or the golden mean. Waylon Jennings said it many years ago: I've always been crazy but it's kept me from going insane."

World-weary New Iberia Police Detective Dave Robicheaux returns in James Lee Burke's 22nd book in this series, The New Iberia Blues. Dave is visiting local boy-turned-film-wunderkind Desmond Cormier at his waterfront estate, looking at the water through binoculars, when Dave thinks he sees a body tied to a giant cross, floating on the waves.

As Dave is more than prone to seeing things that don't exist, like the ghosts of soldiers he fought with and those he killed in Vietnam, he asks Cormier and his odd friend, Antoine Butterworth, what they see. Both claim to see nothing, yet Dave was right: there was a woman floating on the waves, and she has been crucified to a wooden cross.

The woman had apparently worked for The Innocence Project, but was recently more interested in a career in film. Cormier and Butterworth both claim never to have seen her before, but how did she wind up in the water near his house? Meanwhile, Clete Purcel, Dave's loyal yet troubled best friend and former partner, witnessed an escaped death row inmate from Texas running for shelter, and no one is quite sure whether he is guilty of the horrible crimes of which he is accused, or if he happens to be the victim of his overzealous nature.

The crucified woman's murder is just the tip of the iceberg in a series of increasingly ritualistic, grotesque murders which rock Dave and his colleagues. They don't know whether these crimes are the act of a deviant killer who believes in the occult, or if they're simply being staged to appear that way. And as Dave's suspicion of Cormier and Butterworth and their movie-making colleagues grows, he and his colleagues also run afoul of the mob, corrupt cops within their own parish, and a deranged man with a strange honor system. It's more than enough to make Dave question everything he believes in, including his hard-fought sobriety, and puts at risk everyone and everything he loves.

James Lee Burke is one of the finest living writers today. I have been reading his books for 30 years now, and not only is his storytelling top-notch, but few match his talent for imagery and setting as well. When I first started reading his books, he described New Orleans so vividly that when I made my first trip there, I was amazed at how spot-on what I pictured in my mind was to the reality I saw. Here's just an example of his poetic imagery:

"The sunrise was striped with pink and purple clouds, the live oaks a deep green after the rain, the bayou high above the banks, the lily pads and elephant ears rolling with the current. It was a study in the mercurial nature of light and shadow and the way they form and re-create the external world second by second with no more guidance than a puff of wind."

Burke's books are brooding and atmospheric, meditations on good and evil (and man's penchant for both), and the demons that haunt us. They're also stories about fierce love, friendship, and loyalty, and how sometimes our need for self-preservation leads us down paths we'd be better off avoiding. The New Iberia Blues is trademark Burke—full of twists and turns, tremendously thought-provoking and dense with philosophical and psychological insight, and a sometimes troubling look at the horrible things people do to one another, sometimes for no reason at all.

These books aren't as fast-paced as typical crime novels, but they're just so well-written I enjoy the time to marvel at Burke's language and the complexity of his flawed characters. Reading this series for as long as I have always feels like reuniting with old (yet troubled) friends, and I am so grateful to have discovered Burke all those years ago.

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