The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke
Monday, January 7, 2019 at 5:31AM
TChris in James Lee Burke, Thriller

Published by Simon & Schuster on January 8, 2019

“There are moments when you realize that our greatest vanity lies in the belief that we have control of our lives and that reason holds sway in human affairs.” Dave Robicheaux is prone to moments of darkness, an understandable reaction to the miseries he has faced. In The New Iberia Blues, his moments tend to be darker than we have seen in most Robicheaux novels, potentially imperiling his relationship with his daughter and everyone else he cares about. He is feeling his mortality and catching glimpses of whatever lies beyond. Yet he still retains the ability to notice “the leaves blowing along the sidewalks, the flowers blooming in the gardens, the massive live oaks spangled with light and shadow, all of these gifts set in juxtaposition to the violence and cruelty that had fallen upon us like a scourge.”

Dave finds a dead woman’s body nailed to a cross floating in the ocean, visible from the home of a Hollywood director Dave has known since they were both growing up in Louisiana. He wonders whether the director, Desmond Cormier, has anything to do with the woman’s death. Other suspects include a producer with a shady past who is staying with Cormier and another producer who is hanging out with Dave’s daughter.

More murders ensue. They might or might not have been committed by the same killer but they all seem to relate to tarot cards. Dave and the reader are tasked with deciding whether and how the killings are connected.

Dave’s newest partner, Bailey Ribbons, is smart and attractive, which in Dave’s world makes her a target for all the people who have an axe to grind with Dave. Chester Wimple, who smiled as he killed a bunch of people in the last Robicheaux novel, returns in this one. He’s one of James Lee Burke’s creepiest creations.

The New Iberia Blues includes a dead-on description of the Southern white trash who “glory in violence and cruelty and brag on their ignorance, and would have no problem manning the ovens at Auschwitz.” Race is not directly related to the crimes Dave Robicheaux investigates in The New Iberia Blues, but as one of the characters notes, everything in Louisiana is about race. Burke doesn’t back away from that ugly reality.

The novel also showcases the resentment that some people feel about “Hollywood types” who don’t share their narrow values, as well as the lack of sensitivity that Hollywood types have toward people who have less money and education and opportunity than society’s more privileged members. Robicheaux has examined what America has become and knows that it is pointless to “argue with those who are proud of their membership in the Herd,” but he also takes the time to understand why the herd mentality has become so prevalent.

Burke writes beautifully about the environmental and cultural devastation inflicted on Louisiana by industry and seedy politicians to the detriment of Cajuns and blacks and all of the state residents who live in poverty. He writes with dismay about the horror of war and “those people who love wars as long as they don’t have to participate in one.” He writes even more beautifully about the personal turmoil that afflicts Robicheaux and Purcell and even a psychopath like Wimple. When Robicheaux’s daughter tells him that he feels guilty about everything he loves, she nails a common problem — the inability to love without guilt.

Tension mounts as lurking threats give way to imminent danger in the novel’s last act. Burke provides several good suspects and a variety of motives for the multiple homicides. Trying to affix guilt or to maintain trust is as difficult for the reader as it is for Robicheaux and Purcell. The ending is just fantastic. And while the novel is very dark, Burke always reminds the reader that no matter how small a glimmer of hope might be, it can never be extinguished.

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