GUNS, GUTS, GRIT, GUMSHOES, GRATUITOUS, & GRAPHIC
by James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke lives part-time in Louisiana and his most famous character, Dave Robicheaux, is an ex-New Orleans cop turned private detective who probes the dark side of the city and surrounding bayou. Burke has won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and has a huge readership, churning out a book a year for nearly three decades including 20 Robicheaux novels. During this successful run Burke’s Cajun crime solver has become one of the most famous and beloved characters in mystery and crime fiction today. Upon learning about Read Beans on Monday a close friend recommended I read a Robicheaux novel, so, having observed how large this character looms in not only local but national fiction, I dug back to the character’s debut in 1987’s Neon Rain.
Unfortunately, the best I can say is this was not for me.
I’ve said before I’m not a huge fan of genre fiction, and Neon Rain hit all the clichés that turn me off: stylized violence that adds little to the plot, poorly drawn characters that are mere pawns to move said plot along, a convoluted plot that serves as an excuse to move the pawns from one over-wrought encounter to the next, and dialogue that would drop like a rock if ever uttered from real human lips.
I know this sounds harsh, and I’m not trying to be a snob—obviously there’s an audience for this work and I don’t want to trash anyone’s literary tastes. If you’re reading books, it’s a win for writers. Still, I had high expectations for Neon Rain yet ended up finding it a chore that I finished merely for the sake of this blog. When I reviewed The Axman of New Orleans by Chuck Hustmyre, I said that although not my taste I found plenty to value in the work. It had it’s flaws, but I genuinely enjoyed reading it. There was enough depth to pull me along plus it had the fascination of true crime origins. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same here.
Robicheaux so iconic a character that I expected to uncover something truly unique. Instead I encountered all the standards of the genre: tortured ex-military—check; self-destructive alcoholic that manages to, despite his tortured inner dialogue, subtly make slow suicide through liquor seem masculine and ruggedly romantic—check; painfully emotionally unavailable so that vague, beautiful younger women can’t resist trying to fix him—check; tormented good guy under gruff, violent exterior—check; a maverick who can’t help but antagonize authority while wielding his own freely—check; lives on a houseboat—check. (This last one puzzles me the most. Why do so many detectives live on houseboats? Do they meet up at different marinas and have hard-boiled private eye conventions?!)
At least light fare like the DaVinci Code offers a clever puzzle for its stock characters to pontificate about in starched sentences while unwinding it in entertaining if unbelievable fashion. In the end, I’m not even sure what this book was about. It started with Robicheaux pulling the body of a black prostitute out of a bayou on a fishing trip. It is out of his jurisdiction (he is still an active cop when the story begins) but, being the noble rebel, he can’t stand by while local authorities ignore her death. Asking questions, though, leads to confrontations with the New Orleans underworld, dirty NOPD cops (though his excessive force is excused, which I find frightening), Iran-Contra style conspirators, the CIA, the mafia, and Robicheux’s own brother, though none of the connections quite made sense. And I’m still not sure what this poor black prostitute had to do with any of them?!
Perhaps the beginning was the wrong place to start in this case. Some day I may pick up a novel later in the series and give it fifty or so pages to win me back. Obviously there is something worthwhile here to carry Dave Robicheaux through 20 books. Tin Roof Blowdown in particular was a much-hailed post-Katrina novel, addressing the storm through crime fiction–a different take. Otherwise, I may just have to accept that this isn’t my
cup of tea shot of whiskey (with a beer chaser in a dive bar until sunup.)