THE NEW IBERIA BLUES by James Lee Burke

THE NEW IBERIA BLUES by James Lee Burke. Simon & Shuster, 2019. ISBN 978-1-9821-1728-3 .

I read James Lee Burke’s fiction because a friend of mine grew up in Louisiana among Cajuns and Creole cooking. In this taut Noir, Dave Robicheaux confronts bizarre ritual murders committed by a serial killer who draws inspiration from tarot cards. The plot, however, is less significant than the passages mournful about the collapse of nature and justice. New Iberia broods as a Calvinistic swamp from which no one emerges untainted:

“Southern Louisiana, as late as the Great Depression, retained many of the characters of the antediluvian world, untouched by the Industrial Age. Our coast was defined by its pristine wetlands. They were emerald green and dotted with hummocks and flooded tupelo gums and cypress trees and serpentine rivers and bayous that turned yellow after the spring rains and lakes that were both clear and black because of the fine silt at the bottom, all of it blackened with snowy egrets, blue herons and seagulls and brown pelicans.

“We had little money but didn’t think of ourselves as poor. Our vision, if I may call it that, was not materialistic. If we had a concept about ourselves, it was egalitarian, although we would not have known what that word meant. We spoke French, entirely. There was a bond between Cajuns and people of color. Cajuns didn’t travel, because they believed they lived in the best place on earth. But somehow the worst in us, or outside of us, asserted itself and prevailed and replaced everything that was good in our lives. We traded away our language, our customs, our strands of cypress, our sugarcane acreage, our identity, and our pride. Outsiders ridiculed us and thought us stupid; teachers forbade our children to speak French on the school grounds. Our barrier islands were dredged to extinction. Our coastline was cut with eight thousand miles of industrial channels, destroying the root systems of the saw grass and the swamps. The bottom of the state continues to wash away in the flume of the Mississippi at a rate of sixteen square miles a year.

“Much of this we did to ourselves in the same way that a drunk like me will destroy a gift, one that is irreplaceable and extended by a divine hand. Our roadsides are littered with trash, our rain ditches layered with it, our waterways dumping ground for automobile tires and couches and building material. While we trivialize the implications of our drive-through daiquiri windows and the seediness of our politicians and recite our self-congratulary mantra laissez-les-bons-temps-roulez, the southern rim of the state hovers on the edge of oblivion, a diminishing, heartbreaking strip of green lace that eventually will be available only in photographs.”

[141—142]

Normally I don’t quote at such extended length, but in this case, what brilliance there is in this book resides in these passages, full of descriptive passion and remorseful detail. The plot, which involves a film crew making a motion picture in town, along with a bit of romance to tempt Robicheaux, falters and collapses without a convincing resolution at the end. The most memorable character is Chester Wimple, an autistic, brutalized child-man and hired assassin for the mob. His amoral behavior upstages the serial killer’s gruesome crimes, and his subplot drives the best parts with a scary energy.

 There’s still plenty for Noir fans to enjoy. Dave Robicheaux often behaves like a vigilante; quite brutal in his treatment of anybody he considers pure evil:

“I let my old enemy kick into gear, not unlike a half-formed simian creature breaking the chains from its body. The transformation always began with a sound like a Popsicle stick snapping inside my head; the world disappeared inside a wave of color that resembled the different shades of a fire raging in the forest. I was now in a place bereft of mercy and charity, drunk on my own adrenaline, the power in my arms and fists of a kind that, in certain people, age does not diminish.

“When I finished hitting him and throwing him against the wall, I dropped his camera on the floor and smashed it into junk. Then I picked u p a handful of parts and pushed them into his mouth and stepped on them….Then I realized he was probably choking to death. I dragged him into the bathroom and hung him over the rim of the bathtub and hit him between the shoulder blades. I could hear the pieces of the camera tinkling in the bottom of the tub. ” [168]

Anyone squeamish about vivid descriptions of victims’ mutilated bodies would do well to avoid this book. Burke does not luxuriate in his violence, but there is just enough to help substantiate why Dace Robicheaux becomes so upset and relentless in pursuit of a deranged serial killer.

[Reviewed February 12, 2019]

Dr. Mike