Monday, February 12, 2007

Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke, Crusader’s Cross, Pocket Books, 2005, $7.98

I don’t remember when I first met Detective Dave Robicheaux, but by the winter of 1999 I was pretty well hooked. We drove around Acadiana visiting Lafayette, Ibreville, Eunice, and Youngsville during Mardi Gras. At Youngsville, while waiting for a local Mardi Gras parade, one of those parades where kids in their red wagons parade through town throwing beads to an appreciative audience of their parents and friends, where the junior high school marching band plays flat to a crowd that thinks they’re just great. I was sitting in the driver’s seat of our truck reading a Dave Robicheaux mystery when a guy walked by and said, “Great book!” I looked up and there was a guy wearing a Raubichaux’s Bait and Tackle Shop T-shirt. I gasped and said, “Is there really a Raubichaux’s Shop?” “No,” he said, “No,but there’s a great book store called Books Along the Teche in New Iberia.”

After the parade we drove down to New Iberia, the town where Dave Robicheaux works as a city detective and James Lee Burke, the author of the Robicheaux series of mystery novels lives for part of each year. I bought a Bait and Tackle Shop T-shirt and a cap, and we arranged to have notice of new autographed books sent to us. We walked up and down the streets of New Iberia and found a run-down former drive-in with varying formica tops and chrome legs surrounded by chairs from half the kitchens in Louisiana where I ordered my first crawfish boil served in a wok sized metal bowl with one boiled potato placed on top of the pile. The joys of crawfish soon became evident. We drove along the bayou, looked through the gates at Shadows, a magnificent ante-bellum mansion, but we never found our way into the dark world inhabited by Dave Robicheaux.

Crusader’s Cross, published in 2005, joins a worthy group of predecessors in a line of novels following the life of this troubled character. An alcoholic, tortured by memories of childhood, Vietnam, two lost wives, and an angry and violent past, Robicheaux is now aging and more reflective than earlier, but still fighting the same ghosts. He has an unerring eye for the dual lives led by the rich and powerful oligarchy of Louisiana, the mix of patrimony, sin, and guilt that leads to unspeakable violence and degradation. He is both attracted to and repelled by what he sees. To escape it, for many years he dove into a bottle. Now, after years of sobriety, he is still always at risk to “slip.” For Robicheaux, slipping leads to drunken binges and a new round of guilt and self-recrimination. Burke cannot allow Robicheaux a moment of joy, peace, or self-fulfillment before he makes the world intrude with the mindless chaos imposed on it by evil.

This book introduces another twisted, Faulknerian family bitter violence to hide its secrets, a secular nun who Dave finds himself attracted to, and a serial killer leaving raped and degraded bodies from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. While not Burke’s best book, it is a must read. I would recommend reading the Dave Robicheaux novels in order. Dave develops as he ages, gaining some wisdom, but no self control. You can find a complete, chronographic list of the books here. These novels are filled with anger and violence as well as character and tension. Burkes creates situations in which a reader can become fully immersed. No crime writer, maybe no other writer at all can use color, smell, and texture to create an environment as well as Burke. His.descriptions of nature filled with color, smell, and texture punctuated by sudden, explosive, realistic violence create an atmosphere of looming disaster much like Robicheaux’s life itself. Yet Burke’s writing takes him far beyond regional writers. His sweep is local in setting and international in appeal.