Neon Rain – James Lee Burke

neon rainI read the Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) paperback version.
Right off the bat we get poignant social commentary and we meet New Orleans homicide detective Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux who may just be the target of a hitman… seems he’s investigating the suspicious drowning of a prostitute in a parish in south Louisiana that ties back to the New Orleans mob. But its deeper than just the mob… soon South American gun runners are setting him up to take a fall for a federal agent’s death. Then, suspended from the force he continues his own investigation following it wherever it leads stepping over bodies as he goes.

From a Calloused parish sheriff and a pair of his corrupt deputies, to biased and apathetic Internal Affairs investigators, the mantle of Noir fiction rest well on this first Robicheaux novel. His life, from serving in Viet Nam to facing down crime in the underworld of New Orleans while battling the bottle and other demons from his past make for a character that is surprisingly introspective and takes the time to see the beauty around him. Burke takes the time to paint a visually lush and fertile environment throughout the novel. It’s a treat for the senses and an immersive experience.

This is the third novel of Burke’s that I’ve read…. I suppose its about time that I got to read the book that started the whole series. This came out in 1987; over ten years from the first Spenser novel and five years before the first Bosch story… which is now on my list to read. There’s something about the narration of the Robicheaux stories that jumps to life… I just wish that they came out with scratch and sniff pages!

   She sat beside me, wiped ointment on my cuts with a piece of cotton, snipped adhesive tape into strips with the scissors, and taped down two big, folded squares of gauze on top of the ointment. Then she rubbed her hands over my skin, down my shoulders and back, across my chest, her eyes looking over my body without embarrassment, as though she were discovering me for the first time. I leaned her back on the bed and kissed her mouth, her neck, unbuttoned her flower-print blouse and placed my head against the red birthmark on her breast. I felt her body stretch out against mine, felt the confidence, the surrender that a woman gives in that moment when she no longer hides her hunger and instead blesses you with a caress that is always unexpected and heart-rushing and humbling in its generosity.

This time I wanted to give her more than she gave me, but I wasn’t able. In seconds I was lost inside her, her hands right against my back, her legs in mine in almost a material way, and when I tried to tense and stop because it was too soon, she held my face close to hers, kissed my cheek, ran her fingers through the back of my hair, saying, “It’s alright Dave. Go ahead. It’s alright.” Then I felt all the anger, the fear, and the heat of the last two days rise inside me like a dark bubble from a well, pause in its own gathered energy and momentum, and burst away into light, into the joy of her thighs, the squeeze of her arms, the blue tenderness of her eyes.

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The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena

the couple next doorPublished by Penguin Books in 2016 (316 pages) the third novel from Canadian writer Shari Lapena. It’s a masterclass in plotting a fast pace thrill ride… although I think the term is a bit over used, by the second half this book is a real page turner… and I’m glad to be reading a physical copy for the shear joy of actually tuning pages! Much like watching a movie meant to be seen on the big cinema screen.

It’s an intensely intimate look into the characters, their inner world, their life together, not so much their hopes and dreams but their fears and suspicions. Right from chapter one we jump into the heart of the crime… the next ten chapters really focuses on Anne and Marco, but chapter three, Anne becomes ‘the mother’ and Marco becomes ‘the husband’ and it isn’t made clear why. Perhaps this is a chapter written from the detective’s point of view.

Then… click bait alert, chapter eleven is straight out of left field. Things are not what they seem. And by chapter seventeen, the curves start flying – and we know the theme of this is all about the secrets… those we keep from others, but so much more those we keep from ourselves.

But let’s talk about the ending, those last five chapters… the dominoes have been falling one by one and from here the pace just accelerates to a point where all the remaining dominoes are just dumped in a heap, but the truth wins out through a strangling thicket of thorns, and no one comes up unscathed.

And just when you think it’s over… the final chapter holds that sign reading ‘but wait, there’s more’ and as for Anne, in the end, I like to think of her outcome as … ambiguous. But that’s just me, I’m an optimist.

“So what if the babysitter cancelled? They should have brought Cora with them, put her in a portable playpen. Buy Cynthia had said no children. It was to be an adult evening, for graham’s birthday. Which is another reason Anne has come to dislike Cynthia, who was once a good friend – Cynthia is not baby-friendly. Who says that a six month old baby you isn’t welcome at a dinner party? How had Anne ever let Marco persuade her that it was ok? It was irresponsible. She wonders what the other mothers in her mom’s group would think if she ever told them. We left our six-month old baby home alone and went to a party next door. She imagines all their jaws dropping in shock, the uncomfortable silence. But she will never tell them. She’d be shunned.”

Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke

black cherry bluesPublished in 2011 by Mulholland Books, 288 pages I read this on my kindle at a very nice price.

This is the third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it seems to pick up right after the death of his wife. Her death, as well as her ghost haunts him through this story. But it’s a friend of his from College that brings the former New Orleans homicide detective to check into a pair of oil company men his friend Dixie seems to have gotten himself in bed with.

One thing leads to another as they say, and when thugs send a not to subtle threat involving his adopted daughter, its payback time. Then, when one of the oil lease-men turns up dead, Dave follows the leads to Montana to clear himself and finds that his old friend Dixie has taken refuge with a mafia family who’ve helped him in the past.

With missing Indian activists, oil company land deals and mafia drug transactions… well as picturesque as the landscape is, it may not be the healthiest place for an ex-lawman to be asking too many questions.

I’ve read this book having just finished his novel New Iberian Blues (2019). Its been thirty years between these two books and it’s a clear demonstration of something I’ve been calling the “Stephen King effect”. This novel has a fairly simple linear narrative with a limited number of characters moving through it… whereas New Iberian Blues has several narrative threads weaving through numerous characters over a sweeping story arc, and it shows how James Lee Burke has grown and developed as a masterful storyteller.

And, though this novel is smaller in scope than its latter novels it is no less dramatic in is descriptive landscapes:

“I headed for the Blackfeet Reservation, on the other side of the Divide, east of Glacier Park. In the early morning light I drove up the Blackfoot River through canyons of pink rock and pine, with woodsmoke drifting through the trees from the cabins set back in the meadows. The runoff from the snowpack up in the mountains was still high, and the current boiled over the boulders in the center of the river. Then the country opened up into wider valleys and ranchland with low green hills and more mountains in the distance. I started to climb into more heavily wooded country, with sheer rock cliffs and steep-sided mountains that ran right down to the edge of the road; the canyons and trees were dark with shadow, and by the time I hit the logging town of Lincoln the air had turned cold and my windows were wet with mist. I drove into clouds on the Divide at Rogers Pass, my ears popping now, and rivulets of melted snow ran out of the pines on the mountainside, bled across the highway, and washed off the dirt shoulder into a white stream far below. The pine trees looked almost black and glistened with a wet sheen.”

 

New Iberia Blues – James Lee Burke

new iberia bluesPublished January 2019 by Simon and Schuster, 465 pages of pure scenic detective fiction. I checked my copy out from the library and I sure wasn’t disappointed with this. This is the book I had in mind when I was reading Debbie Herbert’s Cold Waters. There are several threads running through this story and its woven together masterfully.

Detective Dave Robicheaux spies a woman tied to a cross drifting in from the bay while on the deck of his old friend Desmond Cormier’s house. The award winning director Desmond and company are in the area filming a new movie when a series of unfortunate incidents occur. From a dead woman on a cross, to a hanged laborer, then a crooked sheriff’s deputy is killed… as Robicheaux diggers deeper into the people surrounding Desmond the bodies pile up.

Is there a killer amongst Desmond’s friends or could it be a fugitive death row inmate from Texas who has been spotted in the area… or perhaps its an albino mafia contract kill whose also returned to New Iberia. It couldn’t be a young deputy who has a knack for being around just when someone is killed… could it?

The descriptions are wonderfully drawn in a vibrancy of detail and oe of the things that I liked about this story is that there is time in between the events. Everything isn’t cramped together, its spaced out, paced over a series of months, season even. The story starts in the spring and concludes in the fall and Burke gives amble nuanced description of the bayou throughout its transitions.

And its not just the physical landscape, no, the characters themselves are painted with a fine-tip brush. Even the recently deceased get rendered in full dimension:

   By Monday the victim had been identified through his prints as Joe Molinari, born on the margins of American society at Charity Hospital in Lafayette, the kind of innocent and faceless man who travels almost invisibly from birth to the grave with no paper trail except a few W-2 tax forms and an arrest for a thirty-dollar bad check. Let me take that one step further. Joe Molinari’s role in life had been being used by others, as a consumer and laborer and voter and minion, which, in the economics of the world I grew up in, was considered normal by both the liege lord in the manor and the serf in the field.

He’d lived in New Iberia all his life, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and worked for a company that did asbestos teardowns and other jobs that people do for minimum wage while they pretend they’re not destroying their organs. He’d had no immediate family, played dominoes in a game parlor by the bayou, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never traveled farther than three parishes from his birthplace. He had gone missing seven days ago.