The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke - book review: A multi-faceted, intriguing story, full of twists and turns

The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke
The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke

For over 30 years, James Lee Burke has been putting the beauty, the ugliness, the heat, swamps and politics of Louisiana’s famous coastal bayous on the map.

The sights, sounds and smells of this vast – and now endangered – Deep South coastal wetland have been filtered to us through the eyes and experiences of 82-year-old Burke’s unforgettable Cajun police detective Dave Robicheaux.

Through a remarkable twenty-two novels, readers have thrilled to these masterclasses in Southern noir starring our maverick but fiercely determined cop’s battles with killers and hustlers, with police brass, and with the bottle.

His best friend and guardian angel, Clete Purcel, a former police officer who ruined his career with dope, booze and women and who now works as a private investigator, has been alongside Robicheaux through every case to help him fight the demons… and bring along his own.

Both are now feeling their age but, still inspired to fight evil in the land they love, the dynamic duo are back in harness for the last chapter of what has been one of America’s best and most critically acclaimed crime series.

And in a story that feels as fresh and focused as The Neon Rain, Robicheaux’s first case published back in 1987, we encounter a tangled web of crime featuring ritualistic murders, Hollywood shenanigans, a deranged contract killer, and ghosts from Robicheaux’s past.

New Iberia’s Detective Dave Robicheaux first met Desmond Cormier on the back streets of New Orleans. He was a young pretender, an impoverished, mixed-blood Indian boy who dreamt of Hollywood stardom whilst Vietnam War veteran Robicheaux had his path all figured out with his feet firmly on the ground.

Twenty-five years later, their roles have reversed. Cormier’s success story is ‘a piece of Americana.’ A successful Hollywood director, with a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination, he is in residence at his luxury New Iberia home with its magnificent view of the bay.

When the police receive three emergency calls about a woman heard screaming nearby, Robicheaux visits the house and finds Cormier with his friend Antoine Butterworth, a creepy, suntanned film producer with a faintly British accent ‘smelling of pretence and self-satisfaction.’

And bobbing on a wooden cross on the sea beyond the window is the body of a young black woman. Baptist pastor’s daughter, Lucinda Arcenaux, who has been murdered and then crucified, was wearing a small chain on her ankle, and all the evidence points to Cormier.

She disappeared near Cormier’s estate, and Robicheaux is looking for answers even though he doesn’t want to believe his old friend would be capable of such a crime. However, neither Cormier nor Butterworth is saying much.

Meanwhile, his friend Clete Purcel has witnessed the escape from a train of Texas jail convict Hugo Tillinger, a psychotic man who burned his own wife and daughter to death, and who may hold the key to Robicheaux’s case.

As the two men wade further into the investigation, they end up in the sights of the mob, the deranged hitman Chester ‘Smiley’ Wimple, and the dark ghosts that Robicheaux has been running from for years.

Ultimately, it’s up to Robicheaux to stop them all but, as the body count rises and the stakes become higher, will he be able to save himself… and those he loves?

Burke, who grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, is totally at home in the landscape that he knows so well and which he has made his own, in a multi-layered story which delivers a thrilling murder mystery as well as allowing readers some final quality time in the company of the ever fascinating and evergreen Dave Robicheaux.

With both swamps and crime constantly on his horizon, the doughty detective has his work cut out in a case that puts him into the path of some seriously dangerous characters including brutal gangsters and his notorious old enemy, the psychotic Chester ‘Smiley’ Wimple.

Burke’s descriptive powers never cease to amaze as scenes of raw violence and menace sit comfortably alongside vibrant, humour-punctured prose and incisive commentary on the social and political factors that have helped to ravage the Louisiana wetlands.

And Robicheaux’s swansong is a triumph; a multi-faceted, intriguing story, full of twists and turns, and with an air of melancholy farewell that will act as a permanent reminder of a thrilling series, and its talented creator.

(Orion, hardback, £20)