This book has ‘swansong’ stamped all the way through it. The latest in a long line of literary crime novels in the Dave Robicheaux series, The New Iberia Blues reads like the author’s valedictory address. It’s an extended farewell to old Louisiana, as the landmass slowly disintegrates into the ocean and the subtle shades of the French/Cajun culture of the Deep South are overwhelmed by the harsh realities of the modern world.
In parallel, detective Robicheaux is an olde-worlde archaism, a flawed but honourably intentioned throwback to the mid-20th century. This is Robicheaux’s ‘do not go gently into that good night’ moment, when the weight of all his personal history threatens to overwhelm the storyline.
James Lee Burke couldn’t write a bad book if he tried, and New Iberia Blues is saturated in his beautiful, lyrical imagery. It comes as close to prose-poetry as you’re likely to find in the crime genre, which means that many readers of fast-paced thrillers may find simply too elaborate to endure. But then, few people will start reading JLB with this book – and it’s hard to see how it could be rewarding unless you’re already a committed convert to the author’s meandering habit of incorporating American history, social justice, moral ambiguity, personal loyalty, the fight for sobriety and a raging white, middle-class guilt-trip into what is essentially a straightforward serial killer mystery.
It’s certainly not the best of the Robicheaux series although it contains all the essential touchstones: Dave’s bull-in-a-china-shop podna in crime, Clete Purcel; his over-protective relationship with adult daughter Alafair; haunting flashbacks to Vietnam; sheriff Helen Soileau doing her best to limit the fall-out from Dave’s self-destructive worst/best impulses… and the bayou itself, where live oaks are strewn with strands of Spanish moss and the silent spirits of the Confederate dead mingle with Dave’s own lost loved ones in the mist.
There’s also a terrific celebration of one of JLB’s finest creations, Smiley Wimple, a crazed but curiously moral contract killer who raises the game of every page he appears upon. Balancing the brilliance of Smiley’s appearance we have a poorly-rendered female love interest, a two-dimensional stand-in for the tough survivor. I struggled to understand why every person in Dave’s universe needs to carry the baggage of a brutalised childhood or other societal ills.
The ritual / tarot theme of the murders is intriguing, although it’s given little development and this connection to the killings is overwhelmed by tangled plot threads en route to the finale.
And indeed the ending is perhaps the weakest part of this story. It’s essentially an encore of many other Robicheaux misadventures. Perhaps that’s fitting, given that this feels like the last of the line, but it comes across as lazy storytelling, plain and simple. The final chapter did not, to me, seem to be Dave or JLB’s finest hour. That comes much earlier in the narrative, when Dave confronts the realisation that he is an old man, and that his time has passed.
This is an adequate conclusion, then, a nostalgic way of saying goodbye to much-loved characters and to JLB’s uniquely indulgent writing. But it’s not the best Robicheaux story by a long way, nor is it the right place to introduce yourself to JLB’s repertoire.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke is available at Amazon
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