I’ve been reading Dave Robicheaux novels since some time in the early 1990s. I could only get them piece-meal as they came available at my local small indie. When I got online I was able to purchase the ones I was missing and kept going. When I got my Kindle I kept going. And when I started listening to Audio recordings I kept right on going and now I’m on book #21. (And I’ve read Burke’s other novels, too – fwiw.)
by James Lee Burke
2017 / 465 pages
read by Will Patton
rating: A+++ / literary crime
It seems like Burke writes with the Biblical authority of Faulkner, avenging the sins of the fathers and the sons and the brothers and a few sisters, too. He gets metaphorical, allegorical, and topical. He goes back into history to find the seeds of evil and then follows the roots and stems and branches to where it flourishes in vivid technicolor today seeming to thrive in back-alley bar-rooms with thugs and dope pushers and so-called high class, old-money families with their own rapists and and money launderers. Every socio-economic level has its own miscreants.
This is life at it’s grittiest in a lush paradise with language to match each – the contrast is amazing. And Burke’s way of working with the eternal quest for redemption is phenomenal – the stuff of the classic theme of good vs evil.
Meanwhile, the setting for this brutality is as lush with greenery and history and old families of genteel backgrounds juxtaposed with abject poverty as any I’ve ever read. When Burke describes the Spanish moss at sunset or the slow moving bayou in south of New Orleans it’s visual. This is a place which still both honors and loathes their Confederate dead, and where manners and morals are intertwined to the point of being indistinguishable.
Burke spares nothing when the fighting starts – it’s bloody. The sex is never graphic (or very rarely) but people’s heads are blown right off with plenty of malice and only rarely any forethought. People talk and think about killing each other regularly.
In addition to the literary devices, there are a LOT of literary references and allusions in Robicheaux – from Kipling to Shakespeare and even Burke’s own book, “White Doves at Mourning.” They’re pretty fun but really I think they give some pointers toward the themes as well as providing relief from the intensity of the horrible brutality.
The literary part never quite takes over the crime story, but it’s close. The structure stays linear and he uses good tension building techniques. There’s a seriously gritty feel to Burke’s novels. But even with the strong language which uses original and appropriate metaphors, and smart and realistically rough dialogue, the ugliest plot lines shine through in all their complexity. A mighty quest for redemption is often at the heart of his best novels with some symbolism and allegory thrown in for good measure. And still the crime is remains the focus.
Through the series Dave Robicheaux has gone through several law enforcement jobs in the New Iberia Parish area as well as three wives, and he has one child who has grown from an adopted 8-year old to an adult woman. His best friend through all of this has Dave’s good friend Clete Purcell, a private detective (of sorts) and general ne’er do well, a violent drunkard with a heart of gold. Dave himself is a recovering alcoholic who had bouts of depression and rage. Some of the characters or their relatives move from one novel to another –
Robicheaux seems like it’s more violent and more philosophical than the priors – it might not be so, but …