My dad introduced me to the James Lee Burke mysteries. At one point I read a couple because they were set in New Iberia, Daddy’s hometown. Last summer I borrowed the audio version of Creole Belle to keep me entertained on a car ride where radio reception disappeared.
At that point I realized Burke wrote with a keen understanding and sympathy for Vietnam combat veterans. His protagonist Dave Robicheaux and partner Clete Purcell each suffer variations on the theme of PTSD involving survivor’s guilt, flashbacks, gruesome deaths, and in Clete’s case a lost love.
Creole Belle motivated me to start the series from the beginning. The Neon Rain has the Robicheaux signature of extreme violence. It opens with a conversation between Dave and a guy who goes to the electric chair just hours later. There are painterly descriptions of the weather, which can turn as violent as the people, and enough action to keep me reading till 2 a.m. Dave and Clete bear the moniker of “the Bobsey Twins” from homicide in the New Orleans Police Department. Characters who orbit them include even more corrupt law enforcement folks, mobsters, drug dealers, and other low-lifes in the city and surrounding parishes. Plus, there’s always a vulnerable female in Dave’s life.
One odd parallel between Creole Belle and Neon Rain – the hook is the same in both. Dave goes on the hunt when the body of a young woman floats up encased in ice (Creole Belle) or surfaces in the bayou (Neon Rain). Both women are what the rest of the world calls Creole and the bayou folk call mulatta. And the cause of death in each case is not drowning or freezing but heroin.
The Vietnam experience stays on the back burner for Dave and Clete in Neon Rain. Plus Dave has seen clear to quit drinking away his demons as the book opens.
Despite the violence, Burke adds depth with philosophical takes on the state of the world. I’m learning more about where my dad grew up from these books than I ever did from him.
These visits to the bayou have given me a powerful craving for the food. I’d recently made jambalaya. This time I tried dirty rice with veggie sausage. It turned out OK except the sausage needed garlic. Next up: oyster po’ boys, though I’m not going to add fried shrimp., I’m drinking chicory coffee but skipping the beignets. I’m surprised Dave and Clete haven’t dropped dead from clogged arteries long before they joined the NOPD. Plus I’m wondering, don’t these people eat any vegetables?!