Robicheaux (Dave Robicheaux #21), James Lee Burke. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
Summary: Robicheaux tries to navigate his way through grief from the tragic death of his wife, his friend’s debt issues, a mobster wanting to make a movie, a demagogic politician and a serial murderer, while trying to clear himself of suspicion in the death of the man who killed his wife.
This has all the elements of a James Lee Burke mystery. A complicated plot, lush descriptions of Louisiana, Confederate soldiers in the mists, Robicheaux under a cloud of suspicion, a grown up Alafair, and a new raccoon to replace Tripod. What’s not to like?
Robicheaux finds himself caught between his loyalty to his old friend Clete Purcell, deep in debt with mobsters holding the markers. The mobster, Tony Nemo wants to make a Civil War movie with novelist Levon Broussard. Alafair, now a screenwriter, ends up writing the adaptation of Broussard’s novel, against Robicheaux’s advice. Demagogue politician Jimmy Nightingale with senatorial ambitions (or more) also wants to meet him and capture some of his lustre. Instead he ends up being charged with raping Broussard’s wife Rowena. But the evidence is shaky, and the only questionable relationship in his life is his relation with Emmeline Nightingale, somehow related to him, and deeply invested in his success.
All through this, Robicheaux struggles with the grief of losing his wife Molly, who died in a tragic car accident. In a downward spiral, he has a conversation that could be construed as threatening with the man whose truck killed her, Dartez. He goes off the wagon, gets drunk, blacks out, and learns that Dartez is dead under suspicious circumstances. Some of the clues, including fingerprints on the truck window glass, connect Robicheaux to the scene and a shady detective in his department, Spade LaBiche.
Sheriff Helen Soileau sticks with him, though she is tempted to desk him. He pursues these different investigation, and then a series of murders by an Elmer Fudd-like character, Smiley, who likes children, kills those who abuse them or cross him, as well as an index card list that someone has supplied to him, via a variety of means from expert marksmanship to up-close and gruesome murders. It all leads up to a political rally with Nightingale, who increasingly is associated with white supremacists where Robicheaux, Clete and Clete’s former girlfriend Detective Sherri Picard converge to stop Smiley before he can do more harm.
The plot and all its subplots can be challenging to follow and one wonders if Burke makes it more bewildering than it need be. Also, the graphic descriptions of violence may not be to the taste of some. Yet the mounting suspense keeps one turning the pages. Robicheaux is deeply flawed and wounded, and yet gropes his way to doing the right thing, even if it means he is guilty of murder.
Burke’s character, Jimmy Nightingale, is an exploration of the particular form of charisma that sways even such a hard-bitten character as Robicheaux. One wonders at the seductive powers of various demagogues through history, and the dark underside of wealth and power that accompanies the personal magnetism. Burke doesn’t attempt to account for such people, but this character is a warning: Beware, they are out there.
This is only the second Robicheaux novel I’ve read, and the most recent. The multi-dimensional character of Robicheaux and the challenging plots have me ready to go back and begin reading the early ones.