Dave Robicheaux is a troubled man. Two years have passed since the events in 2013’s The Light of the World, the character’s last appearance in fiction. That novel left him with many scars. Mostly he mourns his wife, Molly, who died in an auto accident, the circumstances of which remain in question. He is lonely and tired and desperately wants a drink after years of sobriety. Finally he breaks down and gets blackout drunk. When he sobers up, he finds himself the suspect in a murder investigation concerning the death of the man who drove the pickup that killed his wife. Robicheaux has only shreds of memory from the night in question, images that only come in dreams, and he can’t say for certain whether he is guilty or innocent.
This thread is only one of many that composes the complex picture of characters and their motivations that populate the new novel from James Lee Burke, simply titled Robicheaux. The narrative connects to current events in and around Robicheaux’s home in Iberia Parish, just west of New Orleans, Louisiana, but may also extend to cases from previous, unresolved investigations. That is the mystery in play: how the series of possibly random coincidences actually come together in a larger, more sinister tapestry.
Robicheaux sidekick Clete Purcel is along for the ride, as is Robicheaux’s brilliant and talented daughter, Alafair. The story includes characters ranging from low-life informants and gangsters to a popular candidate for the United States senate, as well as a hired killer. There is also a successful writer whose popular novel of the Civil War is a source of competition from several corners vying to secure movie rights. Keeping track of the cast—who is friend, who is enemy—and how they relate to Robicheaux and his allies can be confusing to the inattentive reader. Particularly when those relationships are likely to change abruptly with the turn of a page.
Much has happened in the life of Burke as well since he last wrote a Robicheaux story. Over those four-and-a-half years he’s been evacuated from his home outside of Missoula in two out of three summers due to wildfires, forced to move horses and family to safer locales. He told me in an interview that when he completed Light of the World, he was fairly certain he’d written the last book that would feature his seminal character. This allowed him time to focus on a larger, more sweeping project. The result is three novels: an epic trilogy featuring the Hollands, based loosely on his own family history. The will of the fans proved great, though, and demand for more Robicheaux could not be ignored.
Robicheaux will be a welcome addition to fans of the detective’s adventures. The first-person narrative puts us inside Robicheaux’s head; we hear his inner doubts and his view of the world. Many readers often wonder where the writer’s philosophy ends and the character’s begin. That is one of the joys of reading Burke’s work. He is an intelligent man who writes intelligent characters that rarely live anywhere but in the murky fog of existential gray areas.
The beauty of Burke’s prose is also a signature trademark, and there are passages that seem to come out of nowhere and leave the reader breathless. As an example, this, from some of Dave Robicheaux’s musings:
“I love the rain, whether it’s a tropical one or one that falls on you in the dead of winter. For me, rain is the natural world’s absolution, like the story of the Flood and new beginnings and loading the animals two by two on the Ark. I love the mist hanging in the trees, a hint of wraiths that would not let heavy stones weigh them down in their graves, the raindrops clicking on the lily pads, the fish rising as though in celebration.”
Burke’s writing drops us right in the middle of the distinct part of the world that is Louisiana. Having heard Burke read his work many times, it is easy to feel his languid, softly accented voice come right out of the page into my mind. Every scene is vivid and sometimes almost too vivid in how it evokes sight and smells: an abundance of flowers crowding the front porch of a stately Southern manor on a sweltering afternoon or the rot of an undiscovered corpse left in a hot trailer. The dialogue is crisp and witty, the characters multidimensional. I found myself falling deep into the twists and turns of the story, enjoying the interaction of players, even if much of the action was slow—more cerebral than physical.
Robicheaux is an excellent return for Burke to his legendary character. Readers don’t even need fear whether this truly is the last time we’ll see him, as Burke is currently wrapping up a sequel. Time will tell if that is the last one, but at least we can count on one more adventure with Dave Robicheaux to look forward to.
James Lee Burke reads from Robicheaux at Fact & Fiction Thu., Jan. 4, at 7 PM.
(Disclaimer: Chris La Tray is a part-time employee at Fact & Fiction.)