Created by James Lee Burke
“… all historical events occur simultaneously, like a dream inside the mond of God.”
— The Glass Rainbow (2010)
New Orleans Police Department detective screw-up turned small town cop in New Iberia, Louisiana, DAVE ROBICHEAUX is the Great Lost P.I., no matter whether he wears a badge or not. For all the attention he pays to the regulations, it’s a wonder he’s a cop at all. And frequently he’s not. Suspension is a common occurrence.
Dave’s like a Cajun Conan — a man of great joys and even greater sorrows; a recovering alcoholic with heaven in his eyes and demons in his gut. He’s the eternal loose cannon; never quite fitting in, taking into his own hands when it suits him, and getting personally involved in every case he’s ever worked on. And yet, somehow, despite the odds, he’s still a cop; perhaps the only officer in the rinky dink New Iberia department he works for who has actual, big city police experience. Author James Lee Burke even lets him quit the sheriff’s department for a book and be a private op for a while, teaming him up with his former NOPD partner Cleetus Purcell, not quite dirty but never quite clean, but then he let it slide. Too bad — Dave is a natural P.I.
He is also one of the most haunted of private eyes, at first figuratively and, as the series progressed, literally, but Burke manages to pull it off with skill and passion, offering a keenly evocative sense of time and place rarely matched in crime fiction (the closest I can come up with is Chandler’s Los Angeles), and his depictions of the the back roads and bayous of rural Louisiana verge on poetry. You can smell the bayous, taste the food, and feel a sense of unease as the wind whistles through the trees and the canebreaks. I hate to say it, but “beautifully” is the only way to describe how this guy writes.
Sure, the series has at times wandered into formula. The number of ex-girlfriends wandering back into Dave’s life, desperately needing his help, for example, is staggering. And every book seems to have a scene where Batiste, Dave’s handyman, is heading down to the boathouse to prep the barbeque for the day while Dave slurps an ice-cold Dr. Pepper, watching the condensation bead on the can, as the sun burns off the mist rising on the bayou.
And ever since the pivotal and genre-hopping In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead (1993), in which Dave, having fallen off the wagon, begins to believe a dead Civil War general is guiding him from the grave, one might quibble that there have been a few too many dead people popping up in the books to offer him help on his cases. It almost feels like cheating.
But that’s really nitpicking, because when he’s on his game, Burke is a powerful and masterful writer. No matter how many times he describes that boathouse scene, my mouth still starts to watering, and I swear I can almost smell the bittersweet woodsmoke. And every dead person that refuses to stay dead is just one more reminder that the past is always with us, and that even the most damned of us might, just might, have a shot at redemption.
As it is, a visit with Dave is always a treat. Picking up a new Robicheaux novel after a few years away, I was immediately drawn back into his world, almost drunk on Burke’s heady prose and Dave’s ongoing struggles with his past, his present and the darkness that seems to follow him. His adopted daughter, Alafair, is all grown up now, a successful writer, Batiste and Alafair’s three-legged pet racoon Tripod are both long gone, and Dave’s been widowed again, but Dave somehow, defiantly soldiers on like some Cajun Tom Joad, an Everyman doomed to go down that dusty old road once more, a world of troubles on his back…
“I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere-wherever you look. Wherever there is a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there is a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. “
–John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
* * * * *
The second book in the series, Heaven’s Prisoners (1988), was made into 1996 film starring a young Alec Baldwin as Dave, but the results were far from satisfying (opn the other hand, he might be perfect now). All of Burke’s sensuous evocation of the bayous is missing — the film could have been shot in New Jersey. And Baldwin, one of the producers, was just completely miscast. Rumours that Tommy Lee Jones had purchased the film rights for a couple of Burke novels, Dixie City Jam (1994) and In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead proved to be accurate, but the result, In the Electric Mist (2009) proved to be disappointing. Although ragged, cragged Jones was well cast, director Bertrand Tavernier seemed to envision the multidimensional, nuanced Dave as a sort of simplistic, revenge-driven backwoods Mike Hammer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgars, is the author of over two dozen previous novels, including such New York Times bestsellers as Bitterroot, Purple Cane Road, Cimarron Rose, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, and Dixie City Jam. He lives in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana. More recently, Burke has created another series, the Holland Family saga, which centers around troubled almost-PI, Deaf Smith, Texas defense lawyer Billy Bob Holland, who also occasionally gets advice from beyond the pale, and various members of his extended family who trace their roots back to a legendary, 19th century Texas Ranger, Hackberry Holland.
- “The Neon Rain is a dream come true, a detective novel that bridges the gap to serious fiction with marvelous characters, an intricate plot, and lyrical prose….This is a novel I really admire.”
— James Crumley
- “Burke writes with a profundity and a depth of feeling seldom encountered anywhere in fiction, but his novels also serve as a spirited guide through the back alleys, barrooms, and police stations of Louisiana.”
- — Dwyer Murphy, Crime Reads (March 2018)
- “According to my narrow definition, I don’t think Dave is a true PI. He still works for the Sheriff’s department….so he’s not a real PI, but still a good read.”
— Keith Logan
- In Michael Connelly’s novel Blood Work, retired FBI agent Terry McCaleb is seen working on his boat, wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo of “Robicheaux’s Bait & Tackle”.
- Neon Rain (1986) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Heaven’s Prisoners (1988) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Black Cherry Blues (1989) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Morning for Flamingos (1990) | Buy this book
- A Stained White Radiance (1992) | Buy this book
- In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993) | Buy this book
- Dixie City Jam (1994) | Buy this book
- Burning Angel (1995) | Buy this book
- Cadillac Jukebox (1996) | Buy this book
- Sunset Limited (1998) | Buy this book
- Purple Cane Road (2000) | Buy this book
- Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002) | Buy this book
- Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003) | Buy this book
- Crusader’s Cross (2005) | Buy this book
- Pegasus Descending (2006) | Buy this book
- The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007) | Buy this book
- Swan Peak (2008) | Buy this book
- The Glass Rainbow (2010)| Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Creole Belle (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Light of the World (2013) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Robicheaux (2017) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The New Iberia Blues (2019) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- HEAVEN’S PRISONERS | Buy this video ..Buy this DVD
(1996, New Line)
Based on the novel by James Lee Burke
Written by Harley Peyton and Scott Frank
Directed by Phil Joanou
Photographed by Harris Savides
Starring Alex Baldwin as DAVE ROBICHEAUX
With Kelly Lynch as Annie Robiceaux
Badja Djola as Batist
and Samantha Lagpacan as Alafair
Also starring Mary Stuart Masterson, Eric Roberts, Teri Hatcher, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Joe Viterelli, Tuck Milligan
Here’s a sign of how well regarded this film was — I spotted a copy in a bin boasting a sticker proclaiming “With Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives.” Ouch!
- IN THE ELECTRIC MIST | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-ray
(2009; Ithaca Pictures/Little Bear)
Based on the novel by James Lee Burke
Screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski and Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer
Original Music by Marco Beltrami
Produced by Frédéric Bourboulon, Michael Fitzgerald
Associate producer: Deborah Dobson Bach
Co-producer: Penelope Glass
Executive producer: Gulnara Sarsenova
Starring Tommy Lee Jones as DAVE ROBICHEAUX
Also starring John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen, Ned Beatty, Justina Machado, James Gammon, John Sayles, Levon Helm, Julio Cedillo, Louis Herthum, Alana Locke, Buddy Guy, Walter Breaux
- James Lee Burke: By the Book
Burke gets lightly grilled in this regular NYT feature (December 29, 2018)
- O’Neil De Noux’s Favorites, and Other Big Easy Eyes
Author and Thrilling Detective Web Site contributor O’Neil De Noux is a former real-life police officer and private investigator. He currently writes the NOPD Detective Dino La Stanza police procedural series, and has written several stories about 1948 New Orleans private eye Lucien Caye.
ALSO OF INTEREST
- Jesus Out to Sea (2007) | Buy this book
A moving and powerful collection of non-crime short stories. But if you enjoy Robicheaux or Holland, or just great writing, there’s much here to enjoy.