Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke. Or, blues worth singing.

Black Cherry Blues
Recommended for: fans of deeply flawed detectives and southern noir
Read on August 2013
★   ★   ★   ★   1/2


Sometimes I wonder if you can really like the Robicheaux series. It isn’t easy witnessing a man struggle with his demons, both internal and external, to root for him and watch him both succeed and fail, sometimes in the same breath.

Dave isn’t a simple person, which is one of the attractive aspects of him as centerpiece to a series. He knows his weaknesses, fights them and yet is unable to avoid following his pattern, like Sysiphus hauling the boulder again and again only to watch it roll downhill. He’s been seeing a therapist since his wife died, and they have an oddly telling discussion:
“‘Cut loose from the past. She wouldn’t want you to carry a burden like this.’
‘I can’t. I don’t want to.’
‘Say it again.’
‘I don’t want to.’
He was bald and his rimless glasses were full of light. He turned his palms up toward me and was silent.'”

Beautiful.

Book three in the Dave Robicheaux series opens in a motel, Dave dreaming of the helpless night his wife Anne was murdered. Restless and haunted, he heads to an all-night diner and runs into Dixie Lee Pugh, former roommate, master blues singer, old-time rock-n-roller and dedicated drinker. They only spend a few minutes together, but shortly after, Dixie looks Dave up for help with a couple of thuggish business acquaintances. From there, Dixie’s flailing, drunken attempts to stay out of Angola pull Dave into a world of hurt. As he asks a few questions on Dixie’s behalf, he runs into his former partner Clete. Dave watches him drive away and wishes him a powerful blessing:
“Whatever you’re operating on, I hope it’s as pure and clean as white gas and bears you aloft over the places where the carrion birds clatter.”
Dave almost breaks free of Dixie’s situation when the thugs threaten Alafair; Dave’s inner demons take over and he finds himself facing a murder charge. Freeing himself will mean digging deeper into Dixie’s connections in Montana.

Burke weaves his trademark beautiful, evocative beginning, bringing the varied landscape of the deep south to life, from Louisiana to the edges of Texas. In fact, it’s fair to say that the setting stands in for Dave Robicheaux’s emotions, and it seems to be raining quite a bit in the bayou these days. Unfortunately, setting doesn’t seem to work as well after they head up to Montana, the land of pines, mountainous geography and multi-colored streams. Memories of the south stand in instead.

There is just a touch of humor in this, the kind that makes me smile, albeit crookedly:

“But I had never bought very heavily into the psychiatric definitions of singularity and eccentricity in people. In fact, as I reviewed the friendships I had had over the years, I had to conclude that the most interesting ones involved the seriously impaired–the Moe Howard account, the drunken, the mind-smoked, those who began each day with a nervous breakdown, people who hung on to the sides of the planet with suction cups.”

Once the story moved to Montana, I found Clete and Dixie rapidly took over the story with their extravagant personalities. I didn’t mind, but if anyone is more flawed than Dave, it’s Clete. Clete is no fool either, and is well aware he’s Dave’s stalking horse:
“‘Why’d you keep partnering with me at the First District after you saw me bend a couple of guys out of shape?’ He grinned at me. ‘Maybe because I’d do the things you really wanted to. Just maybe. Think about it.'”

Character arcs and redemption go farther than I expected, and if the villain is a bit of a sociopath, he’s a frustrated sociopath with resources and its no less frightening for it. Batist is well done and avoids both disrespect and pitfalls of the loyal support character. Alafair is written appropriately for a young child, and one of my favorite moments is when Dave acknowledges the foolishness of telling her to be brave: “She had experienced a degree of loss and violence in her short life that most people can only appreciate in their nightmares.”

The first read was somewhat less than satisfying, perhaps because I was pushing the mood and the speed. Burke does not write thrillers, although they certainly have their share of violence and mayhem, and his stories are not conducive to skimming. Visual setting and childhood memories are as important as suspect interviews. The second time–largely accomplished on a comfy lounge chair in the sun–was far more successful and satisfying. I always want to visit the bayou after I’m finished with Dave Robicheaux.

Highly recommended. Note: it won Burke’s first Edgar Award.

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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