By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 464 pages
Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s troubled, flawed and heroic character, first appeared in the 1987 crime novel “Neon Rain.” The Cajun, semi-retired New Iberia, Louisiana, sheriff’s detective, a Vietnam veteran, former New Orleans homicide detective and struggling alcoholic, has throughout the series of novels seen more than one man’s share of violence and tragedy.
In “Robicheaux” Mr. Burke brings back his popular character to face off against his usual suspects; crooked cops, gangsters, corrupt politicians, psychotic killers, and heartless and greedy patricians.
Once again, Dave Robicheaux is both aided and hampered by Clete Purcel, his former New Orleans homicide partner and fellow Vietnam veteran. Purcel, a private detective, is a big and heavy man who drinks and eats to excess. Wearing a porkpie hat over his short blond hair and colorful Hawaiian shirts over his girth, he might appear comical to a casual observer, but Purcel is a dangerous, one-man wrecking crew.
Haunted by his abusive father, war memories and his violent past on both sides of the law, Purcel is self-destructive and prone to violence. But he also has a strong sense of justice and truly cares about crime victims and the oppressed. He is also loyal and protective of his few friends, Dave Robicheaux being one of them.
“The man I came to see was Fat Tony Nemo, also known as Tony the Nose, Tony Squid, or Tony Nine Ball, the latter not because he was a pool shark but because he packed a nine ball into a bartender’s mouth with the butt of a pool cue. Of course, that was during his earlier incarnation, when he was a collector for Didoni Giacano and the two of them used to drive around New Orleans in Didi’s Caddy convertible, terrifying whoever couldn’t make the weekly vig, a bloodstained baseball bat propped up in the backseat,” Robicheaux, the narrator, informs us in the beginning of the novel. “Currently, Fat Tony was involved in politics and narcotics and porn and casinos and Hollywood movies and the concrete business.”
Nemo hands Robicheaux an engraved Confederate sword from the Civil War and asks him to give the sword to Levon Brouusard, a respected and eccentric local novelist. The gangster/film maker is interested in acquiring the film rights to one of Brouusard’ historical novels and hopes that the sword will open that door for him.
Nemo asks Robicheaux about the traffic accident that killed his wife two years prior and offers to do violence to the driver of the other car, but Robicheaux warns him off. The mobster then tells Robicheaux that he is backing a populist Senate candidate, Jimmy Nightingale.
“Jimmy Nightingale was one of the most unusual men I ever knew. He grew up in Franklin, on Bayou Teche, and lived in a refurbished antebellum home that resembled a candlelit steamboat couched among the live oaks. Like his family, Jimmy was a patrician and an elitist, but among common people, he was kind and humble and an attentive listener when they spoke of their difficulties and travail and Friday-night football games and the items they bought at Walmart,” Mr. Burke writes.
“In a dressing room or a pick-up basketball game, his manners and smile were so disarming that it was easy to think of him as an avatar of noblesse oblige rather than the personification of greed for which the Nightingales were infamous.”
Robicheaux goes on to state that Jimmy Nightingale was a man for all seasons: a graduate of military school, a screenwriter, a yachtsman, a polo player and a performer of aerial shows. Noting his self-containment manner and repressed intensity, Robicheaux wonders if he didn’t belong in a Greek tragedy.
Later, the future Senate candidate is accused of rape by Rowena Broussard, the troubled wife of the novelist. Despite knowing both the accused and the victim, Robicheaux investigates the rape claim while also investigating a murder that he himself may have committed.
The murder victim, T.J. Dartez, was the truck driver who crashed into Robicheaux’s wife and killed her. The murder of Dartez occurred at a time when Robicheaux had blacked out, having relapsed and drank himself into oblivion, and the detective didn’t rightly know if he was in fact the murderer.
“Robicheaux” presents a complicated plot, involving multiple characters and backstories, including two that are based on true events — the unsolved murder of eight sex workers in Louisiana between 2005 and 2009, and the bombing of an Indian village in Latin America in 1956.
“Robicheaux” is a provocative and powerful crime novel; gritty, atmospheric and mystical. Although Detective Robicheaux is getting on in years, I hope Mr. Burke has plans to feature him again in another fine novel.
Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.