★ ★ ★ 1/2
With some series, you fall in love with the main characters. Watch with interest as they confront their problems, admire their decisions, root for them during lows, and celebrate the victories. Dave Robicheaux is the protagonist in James Lee Burke’s series of the same name, and I’m not particularly sure I like him (Robicheaux, that is, not Burke). I do know one thing, however–I’m in love with Burke’s ability to bring a setting to life. In fact, if Burke ever leaves the mystery gig and heads into travel writing, I’ll be there in a hot minute:
“It has stopped raining now, and the air was clear and cool, the sky dark except for a lighted band of purple clouds low on the western horizon. I drove through the parking lot to the back of the building, the flattened beer cans and wet oyster shells crunching under my tires, and through the big fan humming in the back wall I could hear the zydeco band pounding it out.”
In the fourth installment, Robicheaux has returned to a detective position on the New Iberia, Louisiana police force. Unfortunately, soon after his return, he’s wounded in an incident at work. A hospital stay and prolonged recovery causes a resurgence of post-traumatic stress disorder and he finds memories from Vietnam are invading his thoughts. Even after returning to light duty, he continues to struggle with depression until a friend with the DEA suggests going undercover in a drug sting. Robicheaux takes the job despite misgivings, lured by the opportunity for revenge more than any concern about the federal War on Drugs. The job also gives him a chance to work with his former partner, Cletus Purcel, now running a club in New Orleans. Even more challenging, it means infiltrating the mob and getting information on Tony Cardo, aka Tony the Cutter, a rising wiseguy in the Gulf drug trade.
It’s hard to sum up a plot of a mystery without giving too much away, but suffice to say that this is relatively straightforward. In general, Burke’s plots aren’t particularly formulaic, but there does seem to be a particular pattern of conflict within each book. Robicheaux is largely reactive, driven by his demons and his emotion, and alternates between a more idyllic conflict-free existence in the bayou, periods of active self-destruction and periods of depression. Progress and action on the mystery is driven by either his mood or external forces acting on him. Meanwhile, in his personal life, he eventually finds a woman who represents everything he’s missing and then crashes into disappointment when she fails to live up to his expectations. This particular story isn’t as casually violent as others in the series, although there remain a couple of nicely tense action scenes and one gratuitous Godfather moment. There are a couple of plot points that cause wrinkled brow or stretched credulity, and a B story that isn’t integrated as well as it could have been, so it is slightly less satisfying.
Characterization is stellar. I believe Robicheaux exists somewhere out there, although I’m not sure I’d like to spend significant amounts of time with him. I remain especially disappointed that he is so quick to leave his adopted daughter Alafair with friends or family when he’s following one of his cases. Alafair has had extensive loss–her father likely killed by Contras, her mother dead in a plane accident, her ‘adopted’ mother killed. While Dave recognizes this, he still is driven enough by his obsessions to ignore the consequences to leaving her. It is precisely due to Burke’s skill in characterization that I feel such sympathy, and such frustration. It is also interesting witnessing Robicheaux’s dealings with the black people in the book, as there is a degree of emotional complexity that doesn’t easily boil down to categories. While he has some sympathy for a black prisoner, Tee Beau, and his grandmother, later in the story he is very disrespectful of their belief in a black witch-woman. However, Tee Beau is comfortable calling him out on it, which says something for the quality of their relationship: “In one way you like most white folks, Mr. Dave. You don’t hear what a black man saying to you.” Ultimately, it can be sad and tiring to bear witness for Robicheaux; although he is very human with moments of generosity and kindness, I get the exhausted sense I’ve done this before. Burke doesn’t write mysteries quite as much as he writes an exploration of the human spirit in all its contradictions.
Overall, a solid installment in a detective series exploring inner conflict. I’ve already planned for the next, A Stained White Radiance.