Friday, September 4, 2015

A blues-ribbon book

Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke, 1989.

This was the third in the Dave Robicheaux detective series and the first of Burke's books to win the coveted Edgar prize for best mystery novel of the year. By now there are twenty or more titles in the series, and while I have read many of them, oddly I had never read this one before. I found it to be an outstanding representative of the series and certainly deserving of the honor it received. The writing is as deeply felt and vivid and memorable as anything in Burke's oeuvre.

If you have not experienced Burke's prose before, any of his books will do. His models were the great American writers like Hemingway and Steinback, and not so much the genre of mystery fiction. His whole object is to sear you with blazing prose that makes you feel into the recesses of the heart and uncover the true mysteries there that can never be totally solved.

However, the Robicheaux series is special, and if you are approaching it for the first time, I would recommend the first two books of the series, The Neon Rain and Heaven's Prisoners, before you read Black Cherry Blues, as your understanding of the main characters will build consecutively. Still, every title in the series stands alone and it is not necessary to read them in order. This is especially true of the later titles.

In this book, Dave, who has become an ex-cop living in a Louisiana bayou, finds himself accused of a murder he didn't commit, and has to travel to Montana to clear his name. These contrasting milieus provide a canvas for descriptive master Burke to pull out all the stops. This is Louisiana: "Late that afternoon the wind shifted out of the south and you could smell the wetlands and just a hint of salt in the air. Then a bank of thunderheads slid across the sky from the Gulf, tumbling across the sun like cannon smoke, and the light gathered in the oaks and cypress and willow trees and took on a strange green cast as though you were looking at the world through water. It rained hard, dancing on the bayou and the lily pads in the shallows, clattering on my gallery and rabbit hutches, lighting the freshly plowed fields with a black sheen." And Montana: "There were lakes surrounded by cattails set back against the mountain range, and high up on the cliffs long stretches of waterfall were frozen solid in the sunlight like enormous white teeth."

Somehow the shift in scene lets some air into the oppressiveness of the initial chapters and symbolically gives Dave space to redeem himself, at least for this novel. There will be many other opportunities for redemption in the books that follow, for Dave Robicheaux is a mysterious soul whose integrity and self-control dance dangerously on the edge with his propensity for violence. It's a compelling brew which make the reading of these books a compulsive addiction.

1 comment:

Kevin Condon said...

I can vouch for the Burke series on Dave Rocheaux and Clete Purcell begin habit forming. My brother and I have read them all between us. I studied a lot of cultural geography once and was offered a job at the University of New Orleans at just the wrong time, so life moved on. Doug's review gave a great taste of Bayou Tesch and so I'm going back. Thanks for the reminder, Doug.