by James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2018
It's oddly comforting that the only lazy or derivative thing about James Lee Burke's 21st novel featuring tough-guy New Orleans sheriff's detective Dave Robicheaux is its title; there's no good reason why this latest book should be called simply Robicheaux – or alternately, no good reason why any of the previous 20 couldn't have been called that; it feels like the title you'd give the final book in your series, the one in which your hero finally heat-shots and throat-punches his way to Valhalla. And yet, James Patterson did it 11 years ago with Cross, Patricia Cornwell did it back in 2008 with Scarpetta, and Burke does it here, despite the extreme likelihood that our great-grandchildren will still be reading the exploits of the titular characters.
The title's simplicity also belies the book's surprising tone of gravitas; the Robicheaux adventures may have years left in them, but as this fantastic latest novel opens, our hero is semi-retired, still bent double with grief for his wife Molly, still working every day to stay sober … but he's of a decidedly morbid cast of mind, prone to imagining that “... somewhere down a deserted street a bus was throbbing at the curb, the passengers hollow-eyed and mute, unable to assimilate the journey that awaited them. Then the driver popped open the doors with a sucking sound, and I knew with a sinking of the heart that the bus was for me and I wouldn't be returning to the city or the state I loved.” We're a long way from Carl Hiaason country.
The plot of Robicheaux is a typically multi-layered thing, with Robicheaux getting pulled into the intersection of several shady animosities. One involves a writer sitting on a story that might become Hollywood's next hot property; another involves the darkening financial crisis of Robicheaux's old friend and colleague Clete Purcell (“We started off our careers walking a beat on Canal and in the Quarter, fresh back from Indochina, the evening sky robin's-egg blue, the clouds as pink as cotton candy and ribbed like piano keys arching over the city”); and the most prominent stars the book's standout character, local magnate and Senatorial hopeful Jimmy Nightingale, who's described by Clete as “a bucket of warm vomit who manipulates the subculture like it's his private worm farm” but who elicits a far more complex reaction from Robicheaux himself. “I liked Jimmy a lot,” he reflects at one point, “or at least I liked things about him. I admired him and perhaps sometimes even envied his combination of composure and ardor, as well as his ability to float above the pettiness that characterizes the greater part of our lives.”
To understate things, that ability to float above the pettiness is sharply tested in the course of this novel. Burke knows perfectly well that any evocation of a charismatic, ambitious Louisiana politician is going to have readers anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop all the way down into an alligator pit, and he plays on those expectations with such skill that he sidelines his own title character for a good portion of the book that so ostentatiously bears his name (why on Earth the title here wasn't Nightingale we may never know).
But we come back to Robicheaux in the end, drawn to this grimmer and more plangent realization of the character. This Robicheaux is still quick to stand up for what's right, subtle in the ways he chooses to flex the muscle of the law, and parsimonious with his words when he's talking to people he doesn't like. But he's also more otherwordly than readers have ever seen him, and it's not just that waiting-bus-of-the-dead business. Ghosts flicker around his sight-lines even when he's thinking of the living, and on these occasions Burke gives full rein to the poetic ellipses that have endeared him to so many fans:
Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the world? Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth Ward of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of “Darling Nelly Gray” and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side.
Those and other ghosts make a perfectly neat return at the end of the book, and there's a neatness to the rest of the many plots as well, although with this author neat almost never equals simple or even satisfying. This is one of the best entries in one of the best ongoing crime-fiction series currently being published, and like all its predecessors, it'll have readers eagerly waiting for the next installment. Here's hoping it's not called Robicheaux Again.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.