Monday, July 30, 2012

Creole Belle

I'm a long-time fan of James Lee Burke's novels. He has a couple series going, the best-known of which are books featuring Dave "Streak" Robicheaux (pronounced "Robe-uh-show.")

Robicheaux is an on-again, off-again detective in New Iberia, Louisiana. He lives in a little house on the bayou with his wife. His step-daughter is grown now, a writer, and there is a three-legged raccoon named "Tripod" who abides there ...

Robicheaux's best buddy is Clete Purcel, an ex-cop turned P.I., and both he and Dave were booted from the NOPD in a scandal some years back. Clete deserved it, Dave didn't, and they've had each other's backs since.

There are twenty-three books in the series, and they are literate, well-crafted, and pretty dark. Lot of evil down in the swamps, and Dave and Clete and the rest find themselves in the middle of it frequently, usually ending with a pile of bodies around them. 

Burke, who grew up in South Texas on the border with South Louisiana, now spends much of his time in Montana, but he knows the swamps.

The latest novel, Creole Bell, is, like the others, dark and full of mean and wicked folks preying upon the innocent. Well, and each other, too. 

The plot seldom matters much in these, it's just a way to trek around the colorful countryside, dealing with more colorful characters. 

These are contemporary books, taking place in the present, though the Louisiana Burke writes about is much closer to the one he remembers from the 1950s. You seldom see mentions of computers, McDonalds, or technology past what you'd see in 1959. Almost an alternative-reality feel to the books. Which never bothered me any, since I remember those years, too, but just so you know.

This one has everything but the kitchen sink in it, mysterious contract killers, Nazi war criminals, racist sheriffs, murdered low-lifes, rape, mayhem, and eventually more bodies. 

The book starts with Dave recovering from bullet wounds in the hospital from the previous adventure, dreaming morphine dreams and trying to separate those from reality.

He never quite manages that, though some of what seemed to be delusional turns out to be real, and some of what seems real is maybe not.

Like I did with Travis McGee, I always turn up for the next Robicheaux book. Long as he keeps writing them, I'll keep reading them. And like John D. MacDonald and ole Trav, Burke is getting a little tired of writing these–at least that's how it feels. In this one, the beats are all there, but it didn't feel as if his heart was altogether in it. Not that it isn't a good read, because it is, and he couldn't write a bad book at this stage, he's too good a writer; still, Streak and Clete feel a little more weary and cynical and reflective than they usually are. Especially Clete. 

Dave's wife gets a few passing nods, and Alafair, his daughter (also the name of Burke's youngest daughter in real life, who is a novelist, too) has a role, though relatively minor.

To be expected, perhaps. Burke is 75, and Dave is about the same age, certainly from what he remembers, though his tour in Vietnam would make him a bit old to have been a young soldier on the ground in the 1960's. Clete is also a Vietnam vet, and there are several references and flashbacks to that time that seem to be from old movies set there, tongue-in-cheekly done, I think. He and Clete are a little long in the tooth to be running around shooting it out with the bad guys, and even as indestructible as Clete has always seemed, he's in pretty bad shape this go-round.

If you haven't read this series, you should. Go back and get them in sequence and do so, don't start with the most recent incarnation, you'll miss way too much background. If you've read the series, you don't need any background on any of the players; if not, this book isn't the first one to read, because I think the assumption is that you have read 'em.

Oh, one thing I found amusing. I've always pictured Clete looking like John Goodman after six days on a bad road and being considerably beat-up in the process. At the end of this novel, a character who knows Clete meets John Goodman, and allows that he is the image of Clete ...

No comments: