- - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

I was pleased to learn that James Lee Burke has a new crime novel coming out in May.

According to his publisher Simon & Schuster, James Lee Burke’s “A Private Cathedral” is his most powerful story. The novel mixes crime, romance, mythology, horror and science fiction, as well as the all-consuming and all-conquering power of love.

“A Private Cathedral” is his 40th book and his 23rd novel featuring Dave Robicheaux, a rugged and principled Cajun and New Iberia, Louisiana Sheriff’s Department detective.

I’ve reviewed several of his novels in these pages, including his last novel, “The New Iberia Blues.” The novel was a sequel to his previous novel, “Robicheaux,” and the upcoming “A Private Cathedral” is the third novel in his trilogy.

In “The New Iberia Blues” Dave Robicheaux visits a Hollywood director who returns to Louisiana to direct a film. Robicheaux knew the director when he was a New Orleans detective and the director, Desmond Cormier, was a street artist. When Robicheaux looked through Cormier’s telescope he sees the horrific sight of a young woman floating in the bay while nailed to a wooden cross. The novel, like all of James Lee Burke’s novels, offers violent conflict, sinister criminals and sad victims. I suspect “A Private Cathedral” will continue in the same vein.  

Although I disagree somewhat with his worldview, I believe the 83-year-old author is one of the best modern crime novelists and his character Dave Robicheaux (pronounced “Row-bih-show”) is one of the best detective characters in crime fiction today. His novels are superbly well-written, and they offer gritty realism with a strong moral tone. The popular series has been translated into nearly every language on the planet.

James Lee Burke is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and a two-time recipient of its Edgar Award. He’s also the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Fiction. Born in Houston in 1936, James Lee Burke grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. He attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute for two years and graduated with honors from the University of Missouri.

He’s worked a good number of different jobs prior to becoming a full-time novelist. He’s worked as a social worker, an oil man, a newspaper reporter and a teacher, which gives him a wide breadth of knowledge of the human condition, which is evident in his work.

Mr. Burke is passionate about the environment, especially in Louisiana, and the blight of the oppressed. In his novels, he has Dave Robicheaux attempt to right wrongs, defend the innocent and punish the greedy, the crooked and the predators who prey on the innocent. 

His narrator, Dave Robicheaux, is a troubled man. After a traumatized childhood, he served in Vietnam during the early war years and later served as a detective on the New Orleans’ Police Department, witnessing and committing violence that continues to haunt him. A recovering alcoholic, Dave Robicheaux struggles and on occasion suffers relapses. Despite his advancing age in each novel, the still physically fit cop often resorts to violence to defend himself, his family, friends and crime victims.       

His best friend and former New Orleans PD partner, Clete Purcell, a series regular, is an even more troubled character. Like his longtime friend, Clete Purcel is a Vietnam veteran. He’s a big man, easily identified wearing his porkpie hat and huge Hawaiian shirts. A heavy drinker and large eater, he too resorts to extreme violence when threatened or while defending friends like Dave Robicheaux.

There have been two feature films made from James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux character. “Heaven Prisoners” was released in 1996 and starred Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux, and Tommy Lee Jones starred as the Cajun detective in “In The Electric Mist” in 2009. 

His daughter, Alafair Burke, has followed him into the family business. A law professor and former assistant district attorney, she is also the author of crime novels.  

When I spoke to James Lee Burke a while back, I asked him if Dave Robicheaux was in any way autobiographical, and he replied succinctly, “The character defects are all mine.”

His first novels were not labeled as crime fiction, so I asked him what drove him to write crime fiction.

“I’ve never changed. My work was always about the same people, same themes and same plot situations. From my first novel, “Half of Paradise,” which I wrote when I was 23 in 1965, to the present,” Mr. Burke said. “The only difference was the narrator was a police officer. I never shifted gears.”

I’m certain his devoted fans will enjoy reading his new Dave Robicheaux novel, as will the latecomers to the series.   

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers. 

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