Sunday, March 17, 2019


NEW IBERIA BLUES by James Lee Burke (Orion, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Detective Dave Robicheaux’s world isn’t filled with too many happy stories, but Desmond Cormier’s rags-to-riches tale is certainly one of them. Robicheaux first met Cormier on the streets of New Orleans, when the young, undersized boy had foolish dreams of becoming a Hollywood director.

Twenty-five years later, when Robicheaux knocks on Cormier’s door, it isn’t to congratulate him on his Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Robicheaux has discovered the body of a young woman who’s been crucified, wearing only a small chain on her ankle. She disappeared near Cormier’s Cyrpemort Point estate, and Robicheaux, along with young deputy, Sean McClain, are looking for answers. Neither Cormier nor his enigmatic actor friend Antoine Butterworth are saying much, but Robicheaux knows better.

As always, Clete Purcel and Dave’s daughter, Alafair, have Robicheaux’s back. Clete witnesses the escape of Texas inmate, Hugo Tillinger, who may hold the key to Robicheaux’s case. As they wade further into the investigation, they end up in the crosshairs of the mob, the deranged Chester Wimple, and the dark ghosts Robicheaux has been running from for years. Ultimately, it’s up to Robicheaux to stop them all, but he’ll have to summon a light he’s never seen or felt to save himself, and those he loves.

Mortality hovers over Dave Robicheaux’s life, scythe at the ready, invading his thoughts as much as his investigations as the thrice-widowed Cajun detective nears the end of his eighth decade on this earth. And while the language and settings may be lush and lyrical, death doesn’t come easy in the sumptuous stories of James Lee Burke. Brutality jars against beauty, and even our heroes often stride down the fierier end of the saints and sinners’ spectrum.

THE NEW IBERIA BLUES shows that Burke, now 82, hasn’t suffered any wilting of his talents even with almost forty books under his belt. His twenty-second novel featuring Robicheaux sees the Louisiana investigator once again crossing swords with some vile humans while calling into question his own choices and actions. A preacher’s daughter is found floating in the bayou, pumped full of drugs and crucified. A death row inmate looking for someone to tell his story has escaped. A former white supremacist, now an informant for Robicheaux’s long-time pal Clete Purcel (a rhino in a china shop sort of private eye), is tortured and dragged to his death. Meanwhile a Hollywood director who rose to fame from the streets of New Orleans has returned home and seems besotted with Robicheaux’s new, young partner.

Robicheaux has to juggle his own flaws, including jealousy, hypocrisy, and a lively temper, while sifting through the detritus to find some sort of justice. Burke somehow manages to perfectly mesh freshness and familiarity, to deliver timeless tales but not be stuck in time.

There’s a zest to THE NEW IBERIA BLUES even as it delivers a familiar Burke recipe of ornate prose, swirling and murky plotlines, deep characterisation, and plenty of symbolism. A well-seasoned and rich gumbo of a crime novel from a true master of the genre.

Note: this is an expanded version of a review first published in the New Zealand Listener on 19 January 2019. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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