Monday 22 April 2019

Entertaining thriller 'The New Iberia Blues' may be Robicheaux's last hurrah

Thriller: The New Iberia Blues

James Lee Burke

Orion, hardback, 464 pages, €24

Doyen of US crime fiction: James Lee Burke
Doyen of US crime fiction: James Lee Burke
The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke

Myles McWeeney

When star director Desmond Cormier and his Hollywood entourage come to New Iberia, a small town near Lafayette in Louisiana, to make a movie, murder and mayhem swiftly follow.

The town's deputy sheriff, Dave ­Robicheaux, grew up in the backstreets of New Orleans with the feted Oscar-nominated film-maker, and when he calls to Cormier's rented home on one of New Iberia's bayous in response to a report that he had heard screaming nearby, he spots the corpse of a young woman floating in the water offshore through his old friend's powerful telescope.

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She has been tied to a cross, yet Cormier and his creepy friend Antoine Butterworth say they hadn't heard or seen anything. More than anything else, Robicheaux wants to believe his old friend Cormier had nothing to do with this tragedy, but as more bodies turn up, each of them cruelly killed and carefully posed in the style of figures from a deck of Tarot cards, Robicheaux is forced to look at his old friend with a more jaundiced eye.

Things become even more complicated when Dave's daughter, Alafair, a former top-flight lawyer turned bestselling author who has come back from LA to stay with him, starts to date another of Cormier's pals, screenwriter and producer Lou Wexler. Dave thinks Wexler, who is around his own age, is far too old for her, notwithstanding his own carnal interest in his new 28-year-old police department partner Bailey Ribbons.

Adding to the rising tensions are the arrivals in town of Hugo Tillinger, an escaped death-row inmate with a murderous agenda, and Smiley Wimple, a creepy, emotionally damaged and highly effective contract killer employed by the mob.

On top of that, Dave is trying to deal with the cynical criminal actions of colleague Axel Devereaux.

James Lee Burke, the doyen of American crime writers at the age of 82, manages his exciting, labyrinthine plot and large cast of picaresque characters who are mostly drawn from the seething underbelly of the American dream, with his usual panache, wrapping this violent tale of greed, violence and revenge in some of the most beautifully wrought, evocative and lush prose you'll find in any genre of North American fiction.

Towards the end of this entertaining novel, Burke, through the voice of Dave Robicheaux, hints that this may well be the swansong of the heroic if seriously conflicted protagonist of 21 previous New Iberia Police Department novels.

It will be hard to say goodbye to ­Robicheaux, who made his first appearance in Neon Rain more than 30 years ago.

Throughout, Robicheaux has had an instinctive sympathy for the downtrodden and oppressed, is totally colour-blind in deeply segregationist Louisiana society, despises the wealthy and privileged who despoil his beloved Louisiana through greed and who expect the law to bend to their will, and will trample over every rule in the police code to bring them to book.

If ever there ever was a knight in more than slightly tarnished armour, it is the flawed but nonetheless admirable Robicheaux.

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