Dave Robicheaux knows that some of what he sees and hears in the Louisiana bayou country is not of this world -- Confederate soldiers marching out of the mist, dead members of his Vietnam platoon calling him on the phone and the like -- but he has learned to take it all in stride.
So when the New Iberia police detective answers a disturbance call at the home of a movie director, peers through a telescope on the man's deck and spots, floating on the waters of Weeks Bay, the body of a young woman lashed to a huge cross, he questions his own eyes.
It's "an image that seemed hallucinatory, dredged out of the unconscious, a superimposition on the natural world of humanity's penchant for cruelty," Dave tells us. At first the director, Desmond Cormier, and one of his Hollywood friends say they can't see the body. But Dave's deputy can, and when they fish Lucinda Arceneaux out of the waves, she's all too real.
That bizarre murder kicks off The New Iberia Blues, the 22nd novel in the Robicheaux series by that American treasure James Lee Burke. His prose is as powerful as ever, his engagement with the dark corridors of America's past and the light of enduring friendships just as deep.
Lucinda is the 26-year-old, mixed-race daughter of a widowed preacher. She has been working with the Innocence Project, the organization that investigates the cases of people on death row who might have been wrongfully convicted. She's also a movie fan and might have connections to Desmond's local shoot.
Desmond is a local as well, or was, and Dave has known him since he was a kid. Raised on the nearby Chitimacha tribal reservation, Desmond defied the odds of an impoverished childhood to become a successful director. He's back in Louisiana to film some of a script that sounds as if it might be based on one of Burke's own Western novels. He's charismatic, attractive and unpredictable, and Dave can't figure out whether he's connected to the crime -- or even very well connected to reality.
Dave has sharper suspicions about two of Desmond's associates, a flamboyant hanger-on named Antoine Butterworth and a producer, Lou Wexler, both of them former mercenary soldiers. Dave particularly dislikes Wexler because the man is pursuing Dave's daughter, Alafair, a lawyer and author, who is working on Desmond's script (and who shares her name with Burke's real-life daughter, author Alafair Burke).
Lucinda's death is just the beginning of the book's body count. Other seemingly unconnected victims -- an ex-con, a laborer, a prostitute -- die posed in positions suggestive of Tarot cards.
Besides his nagging questions about the movie company, Dave is concerned with a prison escapee on the run in New Iberia. Hugo Tillinger was convicted of killing his family and might have ties to Lucinda. Even more frightening is the reappearance of an old nemesis, a chillingly childlike but elusive hitman called Smiley Wimple.
On his first visit to Desmond's house, Dave discovers they share an obsession when he sees a framed still of a scene from director John Ford's 1946 masterpiece, My Darling Clementine. It's a photo of Henry Fonda (as Wyatt Earp) saying goodbye to the title character, played by Cathy Downs, with Arizona's Monument Valley as a backdrop. To Desmond, it's a moment of high romance; to Dave it's a portrait of a man facing death.
Their obsession will come to life -- and become a rivalry -- when Dave gets a new partner, an ambitious young officer named Bailey Ribbons, who is a dead ringer for Downs as Clementine. Desmond says to Dave, "I see the way you look at Bailey Ribbons. I don't blame you. For me, she's Clementine Carter. She takes us into the past, into our first love, into America before the railroad guys and the industrialists got their hands on it. When you're with her, every day is spring, and death holds no dominion in your life."
As Dave puts it, "How do you get mad at a man who speaks in Petrarchan sonnets?" Dave has outlived three wives and grieves for them all; he knows he has no business pursuing a woman so much younger than himself. But while he's at Bailey's home, he tells us, "I didn't want to leave. I wanted to be decades younger. I wanted to be everything except what I was. Unfortunately, at a certain age, wanting something you can't be or wanting what you can't have can become a way of life."
Facing so much death -- those of the murder victims and the possibility of his own or those of people close to him -- Dave can always turn to his indomitable comrade in arms, Clete Purcel. Ex-cop turned private investigator, skilled practitioner of every one of the seven deadly sins, agent of chaos with a tender heart, Clete is as memorable a creation as Dave.
Desmond is something of an alter ego in the book, but Clete has long been Dave's equal but opposite force. You can tell they're in trouble when Clete's the one who says, "Mind if I tag along, do oversight, make sure things stay under control?"
As its plot lines accelerate and intersect, The New Iberia Blues becomes a very dark ride. But with Burke at the wheel, it's irresistible.
This article is written by Colette Bancroft from Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.