James Lee Burke’s “Robicheaux” revisits the author’s best-known figure: Dave Robicheaux, a Cajun sheriff’s deputy in Iberia Parish, Louisiana.
A new year ushers in a new book by one of the most distinctive and important crime novelists working today.
James Lee Burke’s “Robicheaux” (Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., $27.99) revisits Burke’s best-known figure: Dave Robicheaux, a Cajun sheriff’s deputy in Iberia Parish, Louisiana.
To say that Robicheaux is a complex man is a serious understatement: He’s twice widowed, a devoted father, a PTSD-haunted Vietnam veteran and an alcoholic who sometimes stumbles on the recovery road. And, growing old, he’s experiencing increasing signals of mortality.
But Robicheaux also has a cast-iron moral code. He’s a relentless, furious enemy of the corruption, violence, racism and moneyed, entitled hypocrisy he encounters on the job and off.
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Grieving the death of his wife, Molly, Robicheaux falls off the wagon one night and blacks out. When he comes to, he discovers that he may be responsible for the death of the drunk who caused Molly’s fatal car accident.
The possibility that he’s guilty tears Robicheaux’s heart out, despite assurances from his daughter, Alafair, and his best friend, the ebullient, hell-for-leather private detective Clete Purcel, that he isn’t capable of murdering even that particular man.
(Sidebar: The author’s daughter, also named Alafair, is a law professor who writes crime novels of her own.)
Meanwhile, Robicheaux has new problems, including a violently abusive father, an unsolved series of murders and the convoluted rape case of a local artist, Lowena Broussard.
Broussard is just one of Burke’s finely nuanced characters; others include a silver-tongued, wealthy, ostensibly populist businessman who is snugly in bed with white nationalists. (This businessman, an aspiring politician, gives Burke room to consider, passionately but without preaching, today’s shameful political scene.)
Burke has profound gifts for bracing dialogue, meditations on morality and ethics, and lyrical but tough-minded prose. (The latter is particularly strong when it evokes the lush, almost cleansing beauty of southern Louisiana’s wild bayous. Conversely, his grim portrait of some of nearby New Orleans’ less savory corners made me think, Big Easy, my Aunt Fanny.)
Some readers might dislike Burke’s generally humorless and occasionally overwrought prose style, and they may tire of the themes and character types he has returned to over the decades. They might also object to this book’s unconvincing subplot about a movie being shot locally, as well as Burke’s disdain for completely happy endings.
But there’s no denying it: There’s nothing quite like a James Lee Burke book.