Archive for September, 2019

imagesGoodreads lists 250 novels set in Louisiana and the list is not complete.  Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin and Anne Rice come immediately to mind and set certain categorical standards, but in their wake are legions, including me.  I wrote An Unremembered Grave after spending twenty years visiting my pal Doug in Angola, frequently as the guest of Ann Butler at her plantation B&B in St. Francisville, Butler Greenwood.  I was and remain captivated by the complexity of Louisiana, its spirit and eerie allure.  But for the macho and more grossly accurate version of that writerly experience, nobody can hold a candle to James Lee Burke.

He gets it, gets its saint-and-sinner smile, its barely-dead ghosts and most of all, its demise beneath the wheels of change.  He gets that its messy, beautiful soul in all its outrageous excesses is the unvarnished soul of a country.

Now he’s written another novel.  Here’s my review of it.


Travel once again into a mythical and creepy-dangerous corner of Louisiana that exists only in the mind of Detective Dave Robicheaux, stand-up guy. Robicheaux and his equally stand-up-even-when-drunk best bro Clete Purcell are in their eighth decade and Dave’s damsel-in-distress daughter Alafair has to be pushing fifty by now, but hey, archetypes cannot age. They exist in a Jungian collective unconscious that author James Lee Burke navigates like William Blake on a Bird scooter in rush-hour traffic. Hang on for the ride!

Clete sees a man in jailhouse garb jump from a train into a river and beats himself up for 447 pages in hardback for not reporting the event. Ten days later, Dave, visiting a local-boy-now-Hollywood-maven in town to film parts of an astronomically expensive and symbolically significant movie, sees the corpse of a woman nailed to a cross floating in on the bay. By page 17 the jumper turns out to be Hugo Tillinger, an escaped convict accused of burning his house to the ground with his wife and ten-year-old daughter inside. One page later we learn that the crucified woman is 26-year-old Lucinda Arcenaux, who’s been working for the Innocence Project trying to help wrongfully convicted prisoners. Including Hugo Tillinger.

It’s a nice set-up, but don’t even THINK you’ve been handed the backbone of a story. More like the bones of a thumb and a kneecap from a different skeleton. There are quickly more (many more) murders, each bizarre, brutal and exquisitely described. The Crusader’s Maltese cross turns up in a baby’s amulet and elsewhere, as do some of the major arcana of the Tarot deck. There are so many plot threads and delectably-described characters (including Chester Wimple, a small, disturbingly childlike hit man who trusts no one but Wonder Woman), whole arsenals of lovingly identified weapons and ammo, ghosts, hallucinations, hookers, blues singers and references to AA, old movies and organized crime that a truly dedicated reader will record names and details on recipe cards, tack them to a wall and then spend weeks with colored string trying to track the connections.

The result will be an impenetrable mess, but as NYT reviewer Marilyn Stasio said of this book, “But does anyone really read Burke expecting a coherent narrative?”

No. We read Burke because his poetic flair touches an American cultural base of longing for an imagined past in which there actually were good guys who respected women, loved animals and children, and never hesitated to track down and kill bad guys. Also because of that brain-worm he describes in each of us, the one that secretly relishes at least the idea of sickeningly violent retribution.

Burke in the Robicheaux tales is sort of the American Janus – two sides of the cultural coin, beauty and beast, saint and sociopath. Required reading in a time governed by the worm.

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