Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. Mystery/Crime Novel. Hardcover, 447 pages from Simon & Schuster. January 2018. Cover price: $27.99. ISBN: 978-1-5011-7684-3. Also available in paperback, ebook and audio book forms.
Much-acclaimed best-selling author James Lee Burke returns to his most famed character in this, his latest novel. His first-person narrator, Dave Robicheaux, is a steadfastly honest and heroic yet deeply troubled man. As a police detective in his native Louisiana, he often seems a magnet for tragedy and stress—which further complicates his longtime struggle against alcoholism.
Decades after the fact, his nightmarish experiences in the Vietnam War still dog him. The endemic corruption, casual inhumanity and sudden violence he regularly faces on the job have left still more scars on his psyche. As ever, his loyalty to Clete Purcel, his often-out-of-control ex-detective partner turned rampaging private eye, contributes extra complications. And now he’s dealing with the recent loss of his beloved wife, Molly. She was the third spouse taken from him in various, heartbreaking ways.
Even Tripod, his three-legged half-wild raccoon and a longtime soothing presence, is no more!
How much can one man be expected to take?
Oh, and he’s begun having ghostly visions in one part of his mostly rural Parish: Ragged Confederate soldiers marching to their doom and silently inviting him to follow.
As is typical of Burke’s work (and the many novels where Dave is the protagonist) unresolved past issues, both recent and distant, are a key area of concern.
An unwise encounter with the man who caused Molly’s death in a traffic accident is followed by Robicheaux falling off the wagon (again) and suffering a blackout. When the man in question turns up brutally murdered, Dave becomes the leading potential suspect. Even he isn’t sure if he did the deed. And though his boss, prickly but principled New Iberia Sheriff Helen Soileau, (yet again) stands by him, she’s compelled by basic ethics to turn the formal investigation over to an obnoxiously ambitious new detective, Spade Labiche.
While solving this murder (and clearing Dave, if possible) forms the central plotline, other factors become intertwined in a complex, but reasonable fashion—yet another familiar state of affairs in this series.
The Civil War history theme proves central. Local historical novelist Levon Broussard is obsessed with his family’s past and despite being a modern, liberal-leaning person, he somewhat romanticizes the era. He wants to see his book turned into a movie. Rising too-slick politician Jimmy Nightingale and a dying New Orleans mobster both are determined to sideline as motion picture producers. Their competitive efforts lead to intrigue, threats, charges and countercharges, and yes, violence that will eventually be seen to tie-in with the main case.
Additionally, Dave’s adopted daughter comes home to support him. She’s become a respected screenwriter and gets involved in adapting Levon’s novel, much to Dave’s dismay, I might add.
The Dave Robicheaux books are always a rich Cajun stew (a gumbo, if you will) of multiple tasty ingredients. This one is no exception. Here you also encounter the till-now unsolved serial murder of eight prostitutes from neighboring Jeff Davis Parish, a female detective from that area battling sexist idiots in her department as she pursues justice in her own highly individual style, barely disguised racism, Dave’s (and his creator’s) jaundiced view of both criminals (mostly stupid, crude and needlessly violent and cops (mostly not much better), as well as an orphaned child Clete defies the local child services to protect from their highly dubious ‘assistance.’
Then about halfway through the book, a new and unexpected figure comes onto the scene to throw everything into greater confusion. He’s a quiet, even mousy-looking, outwardly timid little man. But his arrival signals a whole new level of initially incomprehensible and moralistic bloodshed. Is he some sort of self-styled vigilante? Is he a professional killer? Is he just plain nuts?
The novel’s body count rises rapidly in a grotesque and bemusing (and dare I say, in occasionally, if very darkly, amusing?) fashion that in the end reveals all—or as close to all as the tangled world of Dave Robicheaux’s Louisiana is ever likely to encompass.
Longtime readers of this series, like me, will surely miss Molly, the delightfully feisty former nun, and, yes, Tripod. But as noted above, other regular members of Dave’s circle are still on hand. That includes Tugs, the much-battle-tested tom cat. A new raccoon wanders into the area and is soon sharing the inevitable cans of tuna and/or sardines with Tugs atop Dave’s kitchen countertop. Like old times? Yeah, kind of. But Mon Tee Coon will never make his fans forget the inestimable Tripod!
My frequent mention of familiar and recurrent themes, motifs and characteristics in this novel tend to point out the one thing about this work that gives me pause. This is the fifteenth Robicheaux book (plus some short stories). While the writing remains rich and accomplished, the story is exciting and compelling, and the world-weary yet fervent outrage Dave is justly admired for again shines through, it begins to feel like Burke is repeating himself. Perhaps that’s inevitable in such a long series.
So, the simply titled Robicheaux might properly signal an appropriate final farewell to his tough yet wounded and satisfyingly humane protagonist—and his thrilling, complex, violent yet genuine adventures.