Once again James Lee Burke has created a phantasmagoric fable set amid the rank luxuriance of the Louisiana bayous. Desperate Dave believes “the dead roam the earth”. Haunted, like Clete, by the Vietnam War, he has no doubt that evil exists. The fact that this gruesome, stunningly beautiful novel ends on a note of hope is testament to Burke’s narrative genius. Let’s hope Robicheaux comes back again soon.
James Lee Burke, the doyen of American crime writers at the age of 82, manages his exciting, labyrinthine plot and large cast of picaresque characters who are mostly drawn from the seething underbelly of the American dream, with his usual panache, wrapping this violent tale of greed, violence and revenge in some of the most beautifully wrought, evocative and lush prose you'll find in any genre of North American fiction.
The king of crime fiction doesn’t need a crown and sceptre. Every page proclaims his majesty. James Lee Burke has now written 22 books about Dave Robicheaux, but readers will never grow tired either of him, his friend, Clete Purcel, or the bayou. The New Iberia Blues should be greeted with a fanfare of trumpets: it is a masterpiece... In the novel’s exquisite epilogue Burke also tips his hat to The Great Gatsby, affirming his belief that the green republic, for all its imperfections and current travails, is ‘a votive gift that belongs to us all’. Those beautiful closing sentences may, in time, become as celebrated as Fitzgerald’s. Roll on forever, James Lee Burke.
But does anyone really read Burke expecting a coherent narrative? We’re hanging on for Robicheaux’s pensées, like his meditation on the living spirits of the dead: “I don’t believe that time is sequential. I believe the world belongs to the dead as well as the unborn.” We’re keeping an eye out for vivid characters like Bella Delahoussaye, a blues singer with intimate knowledge of Big Mama Thornton’s mournful “Ball and Chain.” Maybe most of all, we’re waiting for those angry outbursts when Robicheaux lets it rip: “I don’t think you get it,” he tells one of the movie people. “Louisiana is America’s answer to Guatemala. Our legal system is a joke. Our legislature is a mental asylum. How’d you like to spend a few days in our parish prison?” Only if there’s a new James Lee Burke novel in the cell.
James Lee Burke is a wonderful writer with a particular talent for describing the light and landscape of Louisiana. He is also a master of misery... Robicheaux’s film director friend specialises in light and shade, and by the end of this powerful novel I couldn’t help feeling that a little more light, in the form of a few happy childhoods or satisfactory adult relationships, might have improved it.