Anxiously, I keep my eyes glued to the plate-glass window of the Orleans bar for the porkpie hat and stretched Hawaiian shirt, afraid Purcel will soon track me down, ready to put one in my ear, knock the mashed potatoes out of my mouth, and try to drown me in the mens’ room toilet. That’s what I get for even thinking about dissing his pal, Robicheaux. But what can I say: I have a love/hate relationship with James Lee Burke’s award-winning series featuring the flawed, tough, principled Louisiana cop/bait-house operator who often carries too heavy a load and struggles to control his anger. I better finish my po’boy sandwich and crawfish, and sneak quietly out of town before. . .
I was introduced to Detective Dave Robicheaux last August and I have been enjoying his travails ever since. The protagonist is a flawed, honest, Vietnam vet; former NOPD cop and homicide detective; recovering alcoholic, and current denizen of New Iberia, where he runs a small family business with an aged black man (he has known since childhood) named Batist, and has an on-again/off-again relationship with the local Sheriff’s department. Burke’s descriptions of life in New Orleans and areas surrounding are often colorful, entertaining, and illuminating; there is an ever-changing crew of miscreants and psychopaths to deal with, as Robicheaux and Purcel (as well as other characters, such as his lesbian, tightly-wound partner Helen) doggedly run roughshod over the community, often clueless as to the underlying motives or activities, but gradually uncovering the truth. Thrice married (up to this point: his first wife left, second was murdered) and the adoptive father of a Latin American daughter that he pulled to safety from a ditched airplane, Robicheaux battles internal demons and despicable criminals. His buddy Clete (who deserves a book of his own) is even more interesting---often described as the best cop Dave ever knew, but whose addiction to alcohol, women, and violence knocked him off the force and into LA exile, though now he serves mostly as a PI in New Orleans for some bail bondsmen---and is guaranteed to be loyally by his pal’s side when trouble comes down or out making trouble for the bad guys in the community no matter what havoc he wreaks.
Burke is an excellent writer. His stories flow and keep the reader’s interest, and some passages are absolutely beautiful, and often funny. Loved the line "you hide your feelings like a cat in a spin dryer." I full intend to complete the series. The best volumes (of the one’s I have finished so far), in my estimation, are Neon Rain, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, Black Cherry Blues, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, Dixie City Jam, and A Morning for Flamingos. So, what’s to dislike?
In any series, especially a long-running one, the reader comes to expect a certain amount of repetition---the retelling of the character’s backstory (in this case, for example, such things as his father’s death; mother’s infidelity; wife’s murder; daughter’s rescue; relationship with Batist, Purcel, and other individuals). Burke always includes AA material, a reference to Evangeline, accounts of Robicheaux’s experiences on the bayou and battlefield, and widespread literary references.
It’s all good. But after a while some of Burke’s writing seems almost lazy (or his editor was too afraid to have him change things), as he often uses similar references and words, occasionally several times within an individual book. I wish I had started recording some passages. It is not that bothersome when an individual character uses the same words, but when several different characters use the same phrases in the same way in several different books. . .then I start to feel bothered. Some examples are: being "taken over the hurdles," "take the (marshmellows, mashed potatoes, marbles, rocks, etc) out of your mouth," "dimpled," "flecked," "hot pillow joint," etc. Pretty much, you know there will be a reference to fish "flopping," to an individual being turned into or worthy of being turned into soap (Holocaust-style), to dry lightening, to some sort of malfunction in one’s bowels, to nutria screaming, to a description of a poboy sandwich. Although my memory fails me, I think he even referenced the same song in several volumes.
The other thing that bothers me, is race. Burke appears to be a social liberal, and I expect a protagonist telling a story to reflect viewpoints of his time and place, but every once in a while a passage (or utilization of a disturbing word) sets my skin on edge and strikes me as perhaps reflecting racist thinking in Burke. For instance, in one section in the last novel I read, while retelling a story of a black/white second-storey team, Burke complained that one couldn’t expect much from "watermelon pickers." Maybe it was just the way I read it. . .I hope so. But there have been several occasions when passages gave me pause.
Will I stop reading Burke. No. I really enjoy these stories.