Saturday, February 15, 2014

Louisiana Lit: James Lee Burke: Dave Robicheaux

James Lee Burke. Credit: Deep South Magazine


I've seen Louisiana author James Lee Burke compared to the likes of James Patterson and Dean Koontz. A travesty - Messrs. Patterson and Koontz churn out the equivalent of Harlequin Romances for men. Mr. Burke writes.

Back here, I looked at Mr. Burke's very first book, which I wasn't madly in love with. Subsequent books are exponentially better.

Mr. Burke has written more than 30 books. Twenty of the books center around protagonist Dave Robicheaux.

Dave Robicheaux

A Cajun, Dave Robicheaux is a police detective and the owner of a recreational fishing enterprise outside New Iberia, Louisiana. He was a detective with the New Orleans Police Department til everything went to shit, and then he became an on-again, off-again detective for the New Iberia Sheriff's Department.

Most of the Dave Robicheaux books are based in New Iberia, where Dave lives, though he burns up a hell of a lot of gas and time on his forays to and from New Orleans, working on cases that may have started in New Iberia, but have tentacles elsewhere.

Dave's character

Dave Robicheaux is a man with cracks in his foundation. He was a low-bottom alcoholic while with the New Orleans Police Department, and he had a relapse or two after he joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ghosts from Viet Nam invade his dreams, though less so after he stopped drinking. 

Dave had a mother who loved him and whom he loved, but she had some demons, and he suffered collateral damage from those demons. He admired his father, who was known as a guy who enjoyed a good brawl.

At the point I am now in the series, Dave has had three wives. The first left him because of his drinking and other issues. The second, Annie, was murdered. The third, Bootsie, is alive and still married to Dave. She has lupus. 

Dave has a daughter he saved from a plane crash (murder), in which the plane plunged into the Gulf and drowned her mother and the other passengers. A Guatemalan girl, witness to atrocities in her village, Dave was able to adopt her through the magic of literary license. He named her Alafair. 

Time span

  • The first Dave Robicheaux book was published in 1987; the most recent (as of this writing) in 2013. 
  •  Dave was born in the 1940s and as noted above, served in Viet Nam. 
  •  Mr. Burke was born in 1936, and spent most of his youth in the Texas-South Louisiana coast region.

I draw your attention to this because:
  • Dave Robicheaux does grow older with the passage of time in the book series.
  • Mr. Burke, as he channels through Dave, shares some particular worldviews on Louisiana and the people within and without. 
  • There is a stream of time where you can see how embedded was~has been~is the culture of slavery, indentured servitude, oppression, and almost thoughtless dismissal of human life in our society


Certain threads wind through Dave Robicheaux' stories:
  • Alcoholism, drug addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Southern Louisiana geography and culture
  • The underclass in particular and class in general
  • Violence
  • The insidious, institutionalized inhumanity against man that is part of southern Louisiana's history
  • Environmental issues
  • Living with lupus

I don't know if there are many authors who portray the underclass with... I don't know ... humanity. Mr. Burke does so, albeit without tenderness or sentimentality.

Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell does. In his case, he tells his stories through the eyes of the societal stratum we like to call trash.

About Clete

Clete Purcel, who I suppose one could call Dave's sidekick, is in my opinion, a psychopath. Damned if in every Dave Robicheaux novel, Dave doesn't say Clete was the best homicide detective he ever knew. He never gives a scrap of evidence of this, however, and there's nothing in Clete's actions that support Dave's statement. Unless you consider urinating in a man's car or demolishing a guy's house with a bulldozer good detective work.  

This dumb loyalty to Clete the psychopath is indicative of a chronic flaw, I believe, in Mr. Burke's books. In his very first book, Half of Paradise, one of the protagonists allies himself with a complete asshole, no matter how much this costs him in prison. In the Lost Get-Back Boogie, same thing - our hero will not let go of his loser, crazy-ass "friend" til the very end.

 ... but no one's perfect.

I'm still as engaged in the Dave Robicheaux series now as I was from the start. I thank my mother for pointing me in his direction. 

This is the first in a series on Louisiana as seen through the eyes of Dave Robicheaux as channeled by James Lee Burke.

Coming soon -->  Part 2: Dave Robicheaux and the Northern Louisianans


Anonymous said...

I think you'll find Bootsie was the first wife, Annie the second and Molly the third.

Mzuri said...

Bootsie and Dave R. were high school sweethearts, but to my knowledge, they didn't marry until decades later. At the time I wrote this post, Bootsie hadn't yet died, thus he hadn't yet married Molly, the former nun. Wife #1 was from Dave's bad ol' drinking days while he was still in New Orleans. Go here for a forum discussion on the wives:

Mzuri said...

... So it was Wife #, then Annie (murdered), Bootsie (died eventually of lupus), then Molly. .. But, hey, maybe Dave's not finished yet .... Let me know if you've got different intel, and I thank you for posting!

Unknown said...

In Heaven's Prisoner (written 1988), at the end of CCheat says Nicole, from Martinique, was his first wife. She divorced him after he beat up a guy at Jefferson Downs that she was dating.

Heaven's Prisoner starts out saying he'd been married to Annie for about a year. ... Still reading it, so don't know other wives yet.

Unknown said...

In which book does Dave Robicheaux meet Molly?)

Unknown said...

Bootsie was the second wife. She died of lupus. Moly was introduced in Crusader's Cross, which I am rereading at the moment! James Lee Burke is the best! Cannot wait to read his latest...Robicheaux!

richusvi said...

I’m reading A Private Cathedral and was confused because Bootsie is mentioned prominently early on, but no mention of Molly, whose death (vehicular homicide) is a major element in Robicheaux, pub.I shed in 2018.

Mzuri said...

Per Wikipedia, which knows all things, says:

"[Dave R.] still experiences periods of savage depression and nightmares, which are only exacerbated by the murder of his wife Annie Ballard [Wife #2], a social worker. He married a mobster's widow, Bootsie [Wife #3], a lupus sufferer, ... After Bootsie's death, he weds a strong-minded former Maryknoll nun by the name of Molly [Wife #4]. He was also married to a fourth woman before the book series starts - named Nicole [Wife #1]."

BTW, poor Molly's character development gets shorter shrift than Dave and Alafair's pet raccoon, Tripod.