Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 23 Feb 2018

Robicheaux: You Know My Name by James Lee Burke

I’m guessing that if you’re interested in this review you already know something of the world of Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, Alafair Robicheaux and Helen Soileau who have been with us over a series of 21 novels. There are plenty of commentators out there, and I’m one of them, who think that James Lee Burke is not just one of America’s greatest crime writers but one of America’s finest writers in any genre. In some ways, the fact that he chooses to write in the genre he does is entirely beside the point because what he does transcends the conventions of detective fiction and engages with the universal issues of human good and evil, the fallibility of the spirit and the continuing presence of the past in all our lives. He's also a remarkable stylist capable of the most wonderful turn of phrase but with a capacity to make his dialogue and narrative utterly convincing and beautifully readable.

For those who are not familiar with the series here’s a bit of background. Dave Robicheaux is now an aging detective working in Louisiana and he’s a drunk constantly seeking to find redemption through membership of the AA. He’s also a Vietnam veteran and lives with his past as a constant ghost. But Robicheaux is the moral centre of the world he lives in – his code is traditional but liberal and he’s unshakeably loyal to his best friend, Clete Purcell who is a walking cloud of chaos but someone who also shares Robicheaux’s moral compass. As we join him in this novel he has now been widowed for the third time and he’s finding sobriety an increasingly difficult state to sustain – but at least he has the help of his now grown-up adopted daughter, Alafair who he saved from a crashed plane as a baby. He’s also able to rely on the woman who is now his immediate boss in the police department, Helen Soileau who sticks with him despite his regular transgressions.

If you’ve read any of the recent novels in the series you will also know that the plots are often remarkably complex and defy simple summary. Some critics have argued that Burke tells the same story over and over again and I think there is some truth in that. But it’s a truth that comes from the universal nature of the issues that concern him – how does civilisation and decency come to terms with a world full of people keen to subvert those values. So here we get a story about the rise of a populist local politician, mob-related movie financing, a corrupt cop, a famous writer and his unpredictable wife and a number of low-lifes who meet unpleasant ends. But the central core of the book is the mystery of whether Robicheaux, having fallen off the wagon and drunk himself into a blackout, has killed a man. A supplementary storyline runs alongside this that focuses on Clete Purcell and his attempt to bring salvation to an abused young boy.

Fans will also be unsurprised to discover that there is also an astonishingly scary professional ‘cleaner’ or hitman who pervades the story like the very embodiment of evil. Known only as ‘Smiley’, his motives are unknown, his targets aren’t ever made clear and in the end he……….No, I’m not telling.

The chatter online has been that this might be the last novel in the Robicheaux series and there are certainly indications in the way this book is written to support the idea that the 81 year old author might have reached the end of the line with our all-too-human protagonist. It would also be appropriate for the saga to end with no ending – with no easy or pat conclusions and with the ghosts of the Civil War still haunting the Bayou and Dave Robicheaux still fighting his demons.

Terry Potter

February 2018