Read one of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux detective novels and you'll feel the soft rain sweeping into southern Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico, smell the rich, fecund swamp, hear the shrill cries of mating nutria, taste po'boy sandwiches stuffed with shrimp and oysters and meet the colorful assortment of people that populate New Orleans' French Quarter.
There'll be at least one gangster, and he'll have a moniker with a story to it, like Tony "The Cutter" Cardo, Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni or Sally "The Duck" Dio, who once severed a man's ear with tin snips and told him to say a duck had bitten him.
There'll be a sadistic, slimy, peculiar-looking sociopath: Jimmie Lee Boggs, with elongated, spearmint green eyes and threadlike hair; Victor Romero, with oily black curls; Will Buchalter with sprays of blackheads "like black pepper" in the corners of his eyes.
And there are the other characters, all of whom "have some correspondence, some equivalent, in the real world," says Burke. There's Hogman Patin, a former razor-totin' convict who plays a mean twelve-string guitar and lives in a shack, his yard strung with blue Milk of Magnesia bottles and silver crosses. Gros Mama Goula, a big, hard-boned, tattooed, voodoo-spouting, cigarette- smoking brothel keeper. And Batist, the black man who works at Robicheaux's bait shop and once pulled a six-foot alligator out of a swamp with one arm.
Then there's the protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, a thrice-married recovering alcoholic with a past, a temper and a heart. A former New Orleans Police Department officer, he owns a bait shop and works for the sheriff's department in New Iberia, a small Louisiana town best known for its Tabasco sauce. He lifts weights, struggles with nightmares and puzzles over his world's moral and ethical enigmas.
"Dave is my attempt at 'every man,'" Burke says. "He tries to give a voice to blue-collar people--people with profound feelings but no way to express them. He articulates what other people feel but cannot articulate. Dave is chivalric, decent and kind."
In contrast to Dave is his former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Cletus Purcel, a boozy skirt chaser who wears a porkpie hat, Budweiser shorts and a collection of tropical shirts decorated with parakeets and watermelons. Clete, who has been known to drive a bulldozer through a mansion and pour sand into the fuel tank of an airplane, often comes to Dave's rescue with a length of pipe, a baseball bat or a .45 automatic.
"Clete Purcell is the other side of Dave," Burke says. "He's outrageous a human wrecking ball. God makes people like Clete to remind us of who we are. He destroys arrogance, deflates the pompous, shows them they're not superior to the rest of us. He reduces hypocrisy to the sham it is and pokes holes in pretentiousness."
Burke, who taught writing at UM from 1966-69, is currently enjoying the kind of success most writers only dream of. His third Robicheaux novel, Black Cherry Blues, won the Edgar Award in 1989; Dixie City Jam neared the top of the New York Times best seller list in 1994; and a movie based on Heaven's Prisoners, starring Alec Baldwin, will soon be released. Most recently, Burning Angel has met with critical and popular acclaim.
Raised on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, Burke published his first short story at 19, his first novel at 23 and two more novels by the time he was 34. Then, for 13 years, he couldn't sell a manuscript. The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected by dozens of publishers. When it was finally published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1985, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. To support his family during the lean years, Burke worked as a pipeline welder, social worker, truck driver and oil lease negotiator. He also taught writing and English at UM, the University of South Louisiana and the University of Missouri, among others.
He switched to detective novels at the suggestion of writer Rick DeMarinis also a former UM creative writing professor and Burke's career took off once again with the publication of The Neon Rain in 1987.
Burke's language is rife with a blend of gangster-ese, Cajun French and Southern-speak. The underworld lingo, for the uninitiated, takes a while to understand. To "drop the dime" on someone is to snitch on him; to "drop the hammer" or "pop the cap" is to shoot him. A cop "on the pad" is taking bribes, and someone who's "giving a shuck" is lying. A "biscuit eater" is a poor, landless white, and a "Murphy artist" is a special type of con man, a pimp who never produces the prostitute.
If you know a little French, then you'll know that a traiteur is a conjuror, a loup-garou is a werewolf, a gris-gris is an evil spell and a tonton macoute is a certain type of terrorist. Then there's the Cajun. Open to any page and you're likely to find a sentence like this: "You didn't told me about your hog in my cane, no, so I didn't mean to hurt it when I pass the tractor on its head and had to eat it, me."
A master of description, Burke uses fresh, startling metaphors: "His face was like boiled pigskin." "The muscles in his arms were like rolls of nickels." "He had one dead eye, like a colorless marble." "His stomach was like boilerplate."
Everyone eats crawdads, po'boys, dirty rice and beans. They feast on boudin (blood sausage), beignets (powdered doughnuts), cush- cush (cornbread and milk), raw oysters, fried shrimp and soft- shelled crabs.
Burke's descriptions of southern Louisiana bayous, swamps, flora and weather make the landscape palpable waves scud, rain ticks, palms click. The sky can be purple "like torn plums," or black "like torn cotton" or "white as bone." Smoke rises "like pieces of dirty string." The swamp "boils" with insects.
Burke, who is married and has four grown children, lives a quiet life, dividing his time between Missoula and Louisiana. And although he relies heavily on his own unique Cajun-Irish experience in the novels, he has strong ties to Montana. "I live here because, as (writer) Rick Bass says, it's a place you think of as the afterlife.'" Burke says. He works out daily, fishes the streams and writes incessantly.
After nearly twenty years of sobriety, it's no surprise that alcoholic recovery is one of the most pervasive themes in his books. "What I'm most proud of," he says, "is that all over the country, people approach me at book signings and tell me that these books helped them into sobriety. I'm honored to have that kind of positive influence."
Despite the violence wrought on human beings by others and despite the sometimes grim changes going on in Dave Robicheaux's world, there is always a message of recovery and hope underlying the action:
But, as always, just before dawn, the tiger goes back in his cage and sleeps, and something hot and awful rises from your body and blows away like ash in the wind. And maybe the next day is not so bad after all.
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