Review: Robicheaux

Robicheaux

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.

Review: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

electric mist

In the Electric Mist With Confederate DeadJames Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).

Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.

The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.

He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.

One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.

This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.