Reviewed by Rod McLary
For aficionados of James Lee Burke’s writing – and I will disclose straightaway that I am one – the title of his latest book is prescient. The name Detective Dave Robicheaux of the Sheriff’s Department in New Iberia, Louisiana is well-known and needs no further introduction.
The first book in the Robicheaux series – The Neon Rain – was written thirty years ago in 1987. Robicheaux has aged during the intervening years and his demons are perhaps closer now and less able to be controlled
Robicheaux is the 21st book in the series all of which are set in New Iberia with Detective Robicheaux as the key character along with his best friend Clete Purcell and his daughter Alafair. Sadly, his wife Molly died in a car accident at the end of the previous book – a tragic death with consequences which reach into this story.
As always with the Robicheaux books, the story is less about the solving of a crime and more about the exploration of the dark and corrupt elements of society which exist everywhere. In Robicheaux, there is both a challenging case for Robicheaux to solve with the assistance of Clete and a treatise on the history of the American South and its legacy of shame. Added to this is his and Clete’s personal demons coming out of tragic childhoods and their experiences in the Vietnam war.
Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic and, overcome by grief for the death of his wife, he succumbs by ‘drifting to one of the places which had been waiting for me since I was a child’. This leads to an incident in which the person who was driving the vehicle which smashed into Molly’s car – a dirt poor African-American man with a wife and two children – is killed. The man’s wife and some of his colleagues believe Robicheaux is responsible. Robicheaux doesn’t believe he is guilty but the evidence seems overwhelming.
Robicheaux’ efforts to clear his name form the backdrop to this compelling and well-written story which highlights the corruption entrenched in the South. Along the way, we meet a powerful and dissolute mob boss – Tony Nemo; an ambitious politician – Jimmy Nightingale – who has his eyes on a Senate seat and then – maybe – the Presidency; a famous writer Levon Broussard and his Australian [!] wife Rowena, and a character named ‘Smiley’ who is a ‘cleaner’. ‘Cleaner’ is a slang term for a contract killer.
Some of these characters are grotesqueries especially Nemo and Smiley. Nemo – also known as Tony the Nose or Tony Squid – is described as ‘a gelatinous heap of whale … thrown on a beach’. When first sighted, Smiley is wearing Bermuda shorts and red tennis shoes, a canary-yellow T-shirt with a Mickey Mouse face, and big round sunglasses. Belying his real purpose for being in Iberia, he has a smile like a ‘slice of watermelon’. Other characters are prepared to compromise their principles and ethics for political power, fame in Hollywood or simply because they can.
In the course of this book, Robicheaux succumbs to alcohol with potentially disastrous consequences. He also has visions of soldiers in the American Civil War marching through the trees surrounding his property. He experiences intimations of mortality as he grieves for the death of his wife Molly and wrestles with his demons. His anchor is his adopted daughter Alafair – an intelligent and creative young woman – who alone is able to ground him when the demons hold sway.
Gradually and skilfully, the various elements of the story are drawn together. There is no final resolution but those who live by violence die by violence; those who are corrupt and manipulative achieve their desires – seemingly without consequence – just as in real life; Robicheaux has not killed the man who crashed into Molly’s car. But it is a great journey on which to embark and James Lee Burke in his 21st Robicheaux book does not disappoint.
To my mind, James Lee Burke’s deep south comprises two universes sitting side by side – one being the ‘normal’ community going about its business and the other a dark and corrupt universe in which sexual and physical violence is the norm. From time to time, the barrier between the two universes thins and the violence intrudes dramatically into the community. It is then the task of Robicheaux to intervene and restore law and order. Because of his own childhood and later experiences in Vietnam, Robicheaux has an intuitive sense of how those in the dark universe think and act. As he says himself, there is little difference between the law enforcers and the criminals.
James Lee Burke is excellent at describing corruption:
They [the Mafia] were brutal, stupid to the core, and had the visceral instincts of mediaeval peasants armed with pitchforks. … The portrayal of them as family men was a joke. They preyed on the weak, corrupted unions, appropriated mom-and-pop stores, and created object lessons with chain saws and meat hooks.
On the other hand, he can just as well describe scenes of great beauty:
That evening brought rain and an ink-wash sky and the throbbing of hundreds of frogs. …
I watched the light go out of the sky and the shadows disappear from the bayou’s surface and the alligator gars rolling like serpents on the edge of the lily-pads.
James Lee Burke was born in Houston, Texas, in 1936 and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. He attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute and later received a B.A. Degree in English, and an M.A. from the University of Missouri in 1958, and 1960 respectively.
Burke’s novels have won The Edgar Award twice for Best Crime Novel of the Year. He has also been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant. Two of his novels – Heaven’s Prisoners and Two for Texas – have been made into major motion pictures.
Robicheaux: You Know My Name
by James Lee Burke
ISBN 978 1 4091 7646 6