THE NEW IBERIA BLUES
By James Lee Burke
Simon and Schuster, $27.99, 464 pages
Fans of James Lee Burke’s character Dave Robicheaux are glad that the New Iberia, Louisiana, Cajun detective has returned in “The New Iberia Blues,” a sequel to last year’s “Robicheaux.” They should also be glad to know that Mr. Burke is currently working on the third novel to this trilogy.
In “The New Iberia Blues,” Dave Robicheaux, an elderly but physically active sheriff’s detective, pays a visit to Desmond Cormier, whom he knew in New Orleans when the young man was a street artist with ambitions to become a Hollywood director and Dave Robicheaux was a New Orleans police officer.
“Desmond Cormier’s success story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rags-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing, yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the graves of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages,” Dave Robicheaux, the novel’s narrator, explains to the reader in the beginning of the crime novel. “That is not meant to be a cynical statement. Desmond’s story was a piece of Americana, assuring us that wealth and a magical kingdom are available to the least of us, provided we do not awaken our own penchant for breaking our heroes on a medieval wheel and revising them later, safely downwind from history.”
Desmond Cormier was raised by his poor grandparents on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation in the back room of a general store on a dirt road before the casino operators came to town. Like his grandparents, he belonged to that group of mixed blood Indians unkindly called redbones, the Cajun detective tells us. A thin and frail boy, he lifted weights and became large and muscular. He later waited tables in the French Quarter and was a street artist when he told Robicheaux that he was going to make movies. When Robicheaux appeared skeptical, Cormier asked the Catholic police officer if he still went to church and Robicheaux replied that he did.
“That means you believe in the things that are on the other side of the physical world. That’s what painting is. That’s what making movies is. You enter a magical world others have no knowledge of,” Cormier said.
While visiting Cormier 25 years later in New Iberia, Robicheaux looks through Cormier’s telescope and sees a young woman floating in the bay on top of a wooden cross. Both Cormier and his sinister houseguest, Antoine Butterworth, deny seeing the girl, but a young sheriff’s deputy confirms what Robicheaux saw.
And the homicide investigation begins, while new bodies tally up the number of ritualistic homicides that may be related to the young woman nailed to the floating cross.
Robicheaux is a troubled man, haunted by the death of three wives, his time in Vietnam and as a New Orleans cop, childhood trauma, alcoholism and a violent history. Thankfully, he has the friendship of his former New Orleans police partner, Clete Purcel, the love of his adopted daughter, Alafair, and the support of the New Iberia sheriff.
Clete Purcel, a private detective who is also troubled by his traumatic youth and his time in Vietnam, and as a New Orleans detective. is a big and heavy man who works out while simultaneously eating and drinking alcohol. Wearing an old-fashioned porkpie hat and loud Hawaiian shirts over his huge stomach, he is a one-man wrecking crew with a strong sense of justice. He is also a true and loyal friend.
“What could I say? He was the best cop I ever knew, but he’d ruined his career with dope and booze and Bourbon Street strippers and had hooked up with the mob for a while and now made a living as a PI who ran down bail skips and looked in people’s windows,” Robicheaux said of his friend.
Robicheaux gains a new partner as well as a love interest in a young detective named Bailey Ribbons. Cormier, who is obsessed with John Ford’s 1946 film masterpiece “My Darling Clementine,” also falls for Ribbons, as he believes she resembles the actress who appeared in the film.
Robicheaux, Ribbons and Purcel investigate and battle an odd assortment of crooked cops, prostitutes, former mercenaries, Hollywood filmmakers making a film in New Iberia, and New Jersey and Florida organized crime members who are financing the film. Robicheaux becomes concerned when Alafair, a novelist and screenwriter, falls in with the shady filmmakers.
James Lee Burke’s well-written and suspenseful crime novel offers both gritty realism and a mystical atmosphere. He also offers a unique look at Louisiana history, religion, Hollywood, criminals and cops. I look forward to Mr. Burke’s third novel in the Robicheaux trilogy.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.