Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Mar 2019

The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke

When I reviewed Robicheaux: You Know My Name, the 21st instalment of the Dave Robicheaux series, I reported on the social media rumours that it might well be James Lee Burke’s swan song – after all he is now 82 years old and his output has been mighty. As it turns out, the rumour was nothing more than that and along has come number 22 in the sequence, The New Iberia Blues. And, if you’re a JLB fan, I’m delighted to tell you, it’s another humdinger. All of the usual cast are there, that little bit older with their existential souls a little more scarred and transfigured, but in pretty good shape. That is until Hollywood makes its presence felt in the bespoiled Eden of the Louisiana swamplands.

I’m working on the assumption that I don’t have to rehearse the rules of Burke’s creation – if you’re in doubt though, you’ll find most of what you need to know in this article I wrote a little while ago – and Burke, being the master-craftsman he is, is able to slip us back into his world effortlessly and seamlessly.

It has to be said that this isn’t easy or lazy on his part – he can do it because he is, I believe, one of a small handful of authors who can make a genuine claim to being America’s greatest living novelist. It’s a condemnation of the sort of sniffy literary snobbish that pervades publishing that he isn’t given the sort of credit he deserves – writing detective genre fiction is clearly way too plebby for the elitists.

Burke is sometimes criticised for over-elaborate plots that can, now and then, creak and collapse under their own weight and there is some legitimacy in those criticisms – he seems though to revel in running multiple storylines in parallel and the crossover between them isn’t always as coherent as it might be if you put them under a microscope. But just as Raymond Chandler’s plots often went astray, it doesn’t matter: mechanical coherence is not what you’re reading the books for. Burke is obsessed with the incursion of evil into the world and the damage it does to the innocent and the good and his ruminations on the eternal verities are frequently profound and moving.

The New Iberia Blues has more than its fair share of fatalities and particularly nasty, sadistic ones at that. The appearance of a Hollywood film crew, headed up by local boy made good, Desmond Cormier, triggers a series of ritual murders that are in some way linked to a psychopath with a fascination for the Tarot. Robicheaux and his inseparable buddy, Clete Purcell, have to navigate their way not just through the charnel-house created by this killer but along the way deal with a host of complicating detail and gruesome red-herrings. As usual, Burke creates a positive parade of perverts, freaks, social inadequates, sociopaths and crazies who move in and out of focus as the story spirals down into the darkest of places before emerging into something almost hopeful.

Just a note for those of you who follow the Robicheaux series – the disturbingly odd but oddly endearing psychotic killer, Chester ‘Smiley’ Wimple, makes his reappearance in this book. Look out for his run-in, armed with a flamethrower, with two Mafia mobsters.

I read this book in a day despite its heft - 450 pages – because Burke is just that good. But that’s not to say he doesn’t make the odd mistake or misjudgement and I do have a gripe with one pretty important part of the plot. Robicheaux is given a new detective partner – Bailey Ribbons – who is 28 years old, gorgeous and becomes a romantic interest (but not, of course, in any straightforward way). I hope alarm bells are ringing here because we’re dangerously close to stereotype territory. Her introduction is, in my view, a mistake – she’s the least believable character Burke has created in the series and what she brings to the novel isn’t at all clear to me. In fact her presence undermines the coherence and quite delicate balance of Burke’s creation – which in many ways precludes the arbitrary introduction of outsiders in this way. As I read the book I couldn’t help but wonder if this sub-plot had been added at a later date because it could just as easily have been removed without any substantial or material damage to the rest of the story. I’d hate to think that someone came along after reading a first draft and suggested he should zazz it up by giving Robicheaux a bit of sexual intrigue.

Bailey Ribbons? Terrible name and a terrible idea. (SPOILER ALERT!)  She does at least get written out at the end.

Despite this I still wouldn’t have any hesitation in recommending the book – but then again, if you’re already a JLB fan, I don’t need to tell you that.


Terry Potter

March 2019