Sunday, May 5, 2019

BLACK CHERRY BLUES Is a Great Dave Robicheaux Novel from James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues is the third entry in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it remains my favorite of all of James Lee Burke's novels. As the book opens, Robicheaux, a former New Orleans homicide detective, is now running a bait and boat-rental shop in the Louisiana bayou. He's a recovering alcoholic who remains haunted by the brutal death of his wife, Annie, who was murdered by drug dealers. (Parenthetically, no man in the history of crime fiction has had worse luck with wives than poor Dave Robicheaux. I've lost track of how many wives he's now lost over the course of this long-running series, but it's an amazing number.)

Dave is struggling to raise his six-year-old daughter, Alafair, and to adjust to the loss of his wife, when an old college roommate named Dixie Lee Pugh comes back into his life. Pugh left college to become a rock and roll musician. Later, while driving drunk, he hit and killed a child and was sent to prison. Now out, he's working as a leaseman for an oil company up in Montana. One thing leads to another, and Pugh manages to involve Dave with some very unsavory characters. When one of those characters is murdered, Dave is set up to take the fall for the crime.

The principal witness against Dave is Harry Mapes, a scumbag who's associated with the crew that Pugh runs with up in Montana. Mapes has taken off to Montana and Dave decides that in order to clear his name and save himself from a long stretch in prison, he'll have to go to Montana and track the guy down. Accordingly, Dave packs up his daughter and drives up to Missoula. There he rents a house, puts Alafair in school and sets about trying to get himself out of this jam.

It won't be easy. Both Mapes and Pugh have tied in with a mobster named Sal Dio. Dio has a home on Flathead Lake, seventy miles north of Missoula, and when Dave shows up there, he discovers that Clete Purcell, his old partner from the N.O.P.D. Homicide Unit, is also working for Dio. Dio is attempting to expand his interests into Montana and he and his associates, Harry Mapes included, may have committed several murders in an attempt to protect their operations in the Treasure State. Dave's efforts to unscramble this mess and to somehow clear his name will lead him down a rabbit hole of horror.

This is a very dark, dense, violent novel. It's also beautifully written in a lyrical style that few other authors can match. Burke knows this territory intimately, and as in all of his books, the setting becomes a character in and of itself. Even this early in the series, Dave Robicheaux has become one of the most conflicted characters ever to populate a crime novel. The man is haunted by more demons than any rational person should be able to bear; he lives in a world so corrupt as to seem unsalvageable, and yet he somehow soldiers on. It can sometimes be hard to watch him do so, but at the same time, you can't pull your eye away from the page. A truly great read.

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