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James Lee Burke pens new Robicheaux novel

"Robicheaux" by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, 445 pages, in stores)

It's been five years since James Lee Burke last penned a Dave Robicheaux novel, and hopefully it will not be another five years before the next one.

At least one more Robicheaux novel is coming from Burke, now 81, because he signed a contract with Simon & Schuster for another, to be called “Ball and Chain.”

“Robicheaux” is Burke's 21st novel with the former New Orleans police detective, now a Cajun sheriff's deputy in New Iberia, Louisiana. Robicheaux has become a legendary character in crime fiction.

Burke first introduced readers to Robicheaux in 1987, but his fans haven't heard from him since the 2013 novel, "Light of the World." Since then, Burke has written three books with the Holland family of Texas as the central characters, but Dave Robicheaux is the character who allowed Burke to quite teaching and become a full-time writer.

I got hooked on Burke and Robicheaux in the beginning, not so much because they were great mysteries but because of Burke's prose. He is a wordsmith second to none. He draws on his family background and knowledge of Louisiana and Texas to paint vivid images of the regions and their people for his stories.

Take this one excerpt, for example, from Robicheaux, who is an alcoholic.

“A.A. is a hard sell in South Louisiana. Booze is a big part of the culture. When I was a teenager, nobody was ever carded. Uniformed cops worked as bartenders and in gambling houses in St. Martinville, Lafayette, and Opelousas. The law in Louisiana was never intended to be enforced. Its purpose was to provide a vague guideline that made people feel respectable.”

And then there are scene setters like this:

“The sky was a red-and-black ink wash, the oaks he had named for Confederate soldiers chattering with birds. A patrol car was parked in the neighbor's drive; another was parked by the tennis courts across the two-lane highway. I got out of my pickup and walked around the side of the house and through a line of camellia bushes into the backyard. He was sitting at a folding table under a huge oak by the bayou, the faded battle flag he had encased in glass hanging from an overhead branch. It looked like cheesecloth against the sunset. The dried blood of the drummer boy reminded me of the coppery stains on the Shroud of Turin.”

Robicheaux is a very flawed man haunted by personal demons: recurrent nightmares from Vietnam, ghosts of Civil War troops he occasionally sees marching near his home on Bayou Teche, his battle with alcoholism and now the sudden death of his third wife, Molly, in a car crash.

In this latest novel, the detective has started drinking again, suffering blackouts. He is a suspect in the murder of the drunken driver who killed his wife. Even Robicheaux isn't sure if he did it, and making matters worse, a dirty cop with no moral compass named Spade Labiche is the lead investigator.

There are plenty of slimeballs that Robicheaux crosses paths with in the book, including a sleazy politician named Jimmy Nightingale, who is making trouble for Robicheaux's best friend Clete Purcel, a fellow Vietnam veteran and New Orleans police partner.

Nightingale has national political aspirations and is using fear and racism to build support with white nationalists.

Burke, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, said he wrote the book before the last presidential election, and that the character's forbears are George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy and Huey Long.

In addition to Robicheaux and Purcel's personal troubles, a mobster named Tony Nemo, aka Tony Nine Ball, is making a movie in New Iberia based on a book by a local best-selling author named Levon Broussard, whose wife, Rowena, has accused Nightingale of rape.

Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair, is working on the movie, which further complicates matters. (The character is named for Burke's daughter, Alafair, who also writes crime novels. Her latest book, "The Wife," was just released last month).

As if this wasn't enough on Robicheaux's plate, a psychopathic hit man named Smiley shows up in New Iberia wearing red tennis shoes and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, and people start dying.

Burke has a disdain for happy endings, and the conclusion of this novel may feel unsatisfying for some readers, but the prose stylist who has authored 36 novels is always a pleasure to read.

— Ed Godfrey, The Oklahoman

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›