“Robicheaux” by James Lee Burke (Simon and Schuster, 447 pages, $27.99)
James Lee Burke is a relentless literary genius who produces new books each year even after entering his eighth decade. His signature crime series features the Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux.
His last Robicheaux novel, “Light of the World,” came out in 2013. Burke has been busy with other writing projects — I have been waiting expectantly for the next installment in a series that places this masterful author at the center of my reading universe.
The wait is over. Burke just published the eponymous “Robicheaux,” and after 30 years and 21 previous books in this series I must declare that the author has outdone himself with this one. It is the best Robicheux yet.
This is also the darkest Dave gets. He is a troubled soul. As usual, he is dealing with his personal demons. Dave is an alcoholic and regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings has been helping him maintain his sobriety. He has occasional relapses — and when he does, things can get really ugly very fast.
It doesn’t help matters that Dave’s best friend and crime-fighting sidekick, Clete Purcell, is a full-blown boozer who has no interest in changing his habits. As the story begins, Dave is having one of his recurring hallucinations in which he envisions Confederate soldiers rising up in ghost-like brigades from the swamps. He doesn’t have to be drinking to imagine such things. It happens.
Dave is haunted. There are his Civil War ghosts and also the spectral images he recalls from his own battlefield experiences in Vietnam. He’s filled with grief and a potent desire to exact retribution upon the man who is responsible for the death of his wife. Then there all those unsolved murders.
Clete has gotten himself into a financial bind and Dave is in the process of mortgaging his house in an attempt to bail his buddy out. Things are really starting to press in around Dave and he responds in typical fashion by embarking on a colossal drunken bender so full blown that when he regains consciousness, he has no memories of what he might have done while he was blacked out.
While Dave gathers his thoughts, he is called in to investigate a murder. This investigation becomes complicated by the fact that Dave is considered a prime suspect for the killing — he was so intoxicated at the time that he cannot recall if he did it. He might have done.
This lyrical masterpiece contains numerous subplots. More murders take place. There are many potential suspects. Jimmy Nightingale is a charismatic politician in the populist Huey Long mold. Is he also a rapist? Fat Tony Nemo is a crime lord with dreams of becoming a Hollywood movie producer. Kevin Penny is a pimp/drug dealer/child abuser. Spade Labiche is a total sleazeball and quite possibly a rogue police officer.
Then there’s Chesterx Wimple, aka Smiley, a contract killer who is arguably Burke’s creepiest villain ever. The lethal Smiley is so wonderfully portrayed that this reviewer actually began to like him. “Robicheaux” is James Lee Burke’s finest achievement yet.
Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.