In a previous column, I asked James Lee Burke if his Cajun cop character Dave Robicheaux, the first-person narrator of the Robicheaux series, was in any way autobiographical. “The character defects are all mine,” he replied.
James Lee Burke’s latest Dave Robicheaux novel, “A Private Cathedral,” is a mixture of gritty, realistic crime, mythology and the supernatural. This is his 40th book and his 23rd novel featuring Dave Robicheaux.
Mr. Burke said that “Robicheaux,” “The New Iberia Blues” and “A Private Cathedral” are intended as a trilogy, The trilogy, Mr. Burke noted on his website, “Deals with the times in which we live and my feelings about the great mysteries that beset us for most of lives. I am in my eighties, but the passage of the years has left me with little knowledge and less wisdom, at least when I try to deal with the questions whose answers seem on the edge of my vision but escape into the light when I try to touch them.”
Dave Robicheaux is a flawed hero; a struggling alcoholic who is often unable to stem his rage and acts of violence. He is haunted by his Vietnam War experiences, the loss of his wives, and the violence and cruelty he has seen as a police officer over the years. In “A Private Cathedral,” Robicheaux again faces the wealthy and corrupt, and the criminal and psychotic, plus an adversary from another time and place.
“I returned to New Iberia and my shotgun house on East Main, not far from the famed antebellum home called the Shadows. I was living the life of a widower back then, in the days before 9/11, a recluse trying to hide from my most destructive addictions, Jack on the rocks with a beer back and my love affair with the state of Louisiana, also known as the Great Whore of Babylon,” Mr. Burke writes.
“For me she has always been the embodiment of every vice on the menu, starting with racetracks and bourre tables and casinos and lakes of gin and vodka and sour mash and hookup joints with a honky-tonk special on every stool aching to get it on in four/four time.”
Once again Robicheaux teams up with Clete Purcel, his former New Orleans homicide detective partner. Purcel, a big man in a pork pie hat and loud Hawaiian shirts, calls himself and Robicheaux “The Bobbsey Twins from Homicide.” Robicheaux said Purcel was perhaps the most complex man he knew.
“His addictions and gargantuan appetites and thespian displays were utilized by his enemies to demean and trivialize and dismiss him. His vulnerability with women — or, rather, his adoration of them — led him again and again into disastrous affairs. The ferocity of his violence put the fear of God into child abusers and rapists and misogynists, but it was also used against him by insurance companies and law enforcement agencies that wanted him buried in Angola,” Mr. Burke writes.
“He was the trickster of folklore, a modern Sancho Panza, a quasi-psychotic jarhead who did two tours in Vietnam and came home with the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts and memories he shared with no one. Few people knew the real Clete Purcel or the little boy who lived inside him, the lonely child of an alcoholic milkman who made his son kneel all night on rice grains and whipped him regularly with a razor strap.”
Mr. Burke’s novels have always had a touch of the supernatural, but in this novel, the supernatural is center stage with Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel encountering a serpent-faced time-traveler named Gideon Richetti. Richetti, who calls himself a “Revelator,” commits pure acts of evil and nearly kills Purcel, but as one reads on, Richetti becomes more complicated.
The novel’s plot centers on a plan to create a union between two Louisiana criminal clans, the Shondells and the Balangies. The two clans, who have been feuding for more than 400 years, want Johnny Shondell, a teenage singer, to hand over his teenage girlfriend and accompanying singer, Isolde Balangie, to his much older and corrupt uncle, Mark Shondell, the leader of the Shondell clan.
Dave Robicheaux considers this to be a form of human trafficking and when the young couple disappears, he involves himself in the clash of the two clans. He becomes involved with Isolde’s mother, but can’t understand her relationship to her husband, Adonis Balangie, Isolde’s stepfather, and her agreement to hand over her daughter to an aging, crooked creep.
Although I disagree mostly with his political views, I believe James Lee Burke is one of our best modern crime novelists. “A Private Cathedral” is a well-written, insightful and interesting crime novel.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.