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.

Cold Waters – Debbie Herbert

cold waters2019 published by Thomas Mercer 323 pages, I read the kindle edition

More drama llamas running through this book than bulls at Pamplona!

I picked this book hoping to get a sense of small town Alabama, and a good mystery in the mix… instead, I know more about the Keurig machine in the police station in an ‘old man vs new tech’ trope than I do about the building itself. The characters themselves are drawn straight out of central casting and never really developed past their tightly confined narratives… they boarder on base stereotypes. .. and as far as the ‘mystery’ goes, the only red herring will be found in a jar of cream sauce in Delaney’s pantry…

The story is about Violet, as she returns home from her stint in a halfway house having been interred at a mental facility for ten years following her witnessing the death of her best friend… or is she more than a witness? She is presented as a troubled soul who takes solace in her superstitions and talismans. And she has her reservations about returning to her home in Normal, a small Alabama town, to claim an inheritance left by her mother.

Waiting for her there are her evil step-sister Delaney and her father, an alcoholic with rage issues now showing signs of dementia. I characterize Delaney as ‘the evil step-sister’ because that is how she is presented by every character that narrates their interactions with her… and she is true to that stereotype.

The story is narrated in the first person and predominantly by Violet. For most of the time she’s narrating in the present-time, but smore chapter are set in the past, mostly ten years ago when the death of her friend Ainsley occurred. Other characters narrate scenes from their points of view, Delaney, Hyacinth (Her mother), Boone (the detective)… but even though the narrator changes, the ‘voice’ doesn’t change. Its as if all these characters sound the same.

Since is was an Amazon April recommendation I didn’t want to just shelve it. But, at about the halfway point I was able to push the throttle down and go right into skimming mode, just to get through this.

As for the theme in all this? Quite simply, the ends justify the means. Cue music, roll credits…

“You were rude,” she accused. Her eyes rked over me. “And why didn’t you wash up? I told you they were coming this afternoon.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I mentioned it twice at breakfast,” she insisted.

She hadn’t, but I let that go. “Why did you tell them those lies about me having nightmares?”

“they weren’t lies. Every night, you scream in your sleep.”

My anger went down a notch. Was she telling the truth? I shook my head. “If I had nightmares, I’d remember.”

Delany arched a brow. “Do you always remember your dreams or wake up from a bad one?”

“No, guess not,” I had to admit. “Do I really call out Ainsley’s name?”

“You do. Repeatedly. Last night and most every night.”

The Oxford Murders – Guillermo Martinez

oxford murdersI’ve read the Penguin Press 2005 paperback edition translated from Spanish to English.

This is the third novel by Argentinian mathematician Guillermo Martinez. The story is a nice, compact (197 pages) page turner on a classic mystery reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. I enjoyed this story, its narration was clear and to the point, no barrel of red herrings that you would get from Colin Dexter.

Our narrator, an Argentinian mathematics student come to Oxford to further his studies, tells this tale of events that happened in the past… it unfolds nicely at a leisurely pace on the bucolic suburb of Oxford. Shortly after settling into a room he lets from an elderly lady, she is murdered, and a mathematical clue is left with his mentor Professor Seldom, who discovers the body with our narrator.

I like the opening to this story. Its narrated in a journal or a diary tone that seems somewhat intimate and old fashioned… I can picture the then young, now older man reflecting back a what would probably be one of the most memorable highlights of his life. A grand adventure!

The story touches on several mathematical topics and theories, as well as several philosophical themes as the two gentlemen work to solve what may be a series of murders, each laid out in a mathematical sequence. As I finished this book, there was something that I had remembered from somewhere else… the best place to hide a murder, is in a series of murders.

One of the draw backs to this book being so brief, is that although we are taken to several different locations within Oxford while taking this pursuit, we never really get to stop and admire our surrounding all that much. Surely Kaminsky would have shown us more of the sights.

Now that the years have passed and everything’s been forgotten, and now that I’ve received a terse e-mail from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom’s death, I feel I can break my silence (which he never asked for anyway) and tell the truth about the events that reached the British papers in the summer of ’93 with macabre and sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred – perhaps due to the mathematical connotation – simply as the series, or Oxford Series. Indeed, the deaths all occurred in Oxfordshire, at the beginning of my stay in England, and I had te dubious privilege of seeing first at close range.