Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Books

James Lee Burke talks about the return of ‘Robicheaux’

Do you miss Dave Robicheaux?

Countless fans of crime fiction writer James Lee Burke know that name. Robicheaux is the conflicted, principled main character of 20 exceptional novels by Burke, an Edgar winner and Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America.

Set in New Orleans and New Iberia, La., the books are gripping mysteries as well as insightful explorations of the tangled relationships between violence and honor, between those who enforce the law and those who break it.

The last book about Robicheaux, Light of the World, was published in 2012. Burke has written three books since then, but now Dave is back with his name in the title of Robicheaux, to be published Jan. 2.

At 81, Burke is at the top of his form, still drawing from the rich material of his family background in Louisiana and Texas as well as his deep knowledge of literature and history. Robicheaux rings with lovely prose and chills with a dark vision of America’s current condition.

Its title character is devastated by the sudden death of his wife, Molly, and haunted by his longtime demons: his memories of Vietnam and his at-bay (for the moment) alcoholism, not to mention the ghosts of Civil War troops he occasionally sees marching near his home on Bayou Teche.

Robicheaux himself soldiers on as a detective in the police department in New Iberia, where the landscape’s unearthly beauty contrasts with the corruption, poverty and violence of many of its human inhabitants.

In this novel, Robicheaux and his best friend, Clete Purcell — who lets his demons off the leash daily — get in the middle of escalating hostilities between Jimmy Nightingale, a local politician poised to rise to the national stage, and a novelist named Levon Broussard and his enigmatic wife.

Burke talked with the Tampa Bay Times by phone from his ranch near Lolo, Mont.

It’s been five years since you published the last book about Dave Robicheaux. Why did you take a break from the character, and why did you bring him back?

I thought I had ended the series with Light of the World. It was the 20th book. So I started a trilogy about the Holland family, which I completed with The Jealous Kind.

But so many people kept asking for just one more book about Robicheaux. I signed a contract with Simon & Schuster to write two, and this is the first one. It was reader demand by and large, no doubt. That series has had enormous success. Without it, I never would have been able to write full time. It allowed me to leave teaching and just write, and not many writers are able to do that.

Dave Robicheaux is more a witness to history than a participant in it. I wanted the books to be both contemporaneous and metaphorical. Robicheaux works as a character because he is the common man, like the one in medieval morality plays.

Although readers shouldn’t confuse fictional characters with their authors, you do have a character in Robicheaux who is a novelist. Levon Broussard’s last name is one he shares with some of your ancestors and with Aaron Broussard, the main character of The Jealous Kind. Levon even has a book he considers his best work that has the same title as your historical novel White Doves at Morning. How is he related to Aaron, and to you?

(Laughs.) I kind of wove that in there. He’s Aaron’s cousin.

All of these characters live somewhere in my unconscious. I’d like to lay claim to their virtues, but more often their defects are what I share.

Levon is an antithetically mixed person. He’s a foil to Jimmy Nightingale. They have the same background, the same education, ancestral roots, successful families, the connections to the Confederate Army. But Jimmy Nightingale is not conflicted about that. He exploits it; he exploits racism and fear.

Levon Broussard is torn between his admiration for his ancestors and revulsion. He takes great pride in the flag that hangs in his office, a flag from Shiloh. My own great-uncle was there. Forty percent of his regiment was wounded or killed in the first 15 minutes. There’s blood on that flag that Broussard keeps in an airtight display.

He can’t reconcile the courage, the incredible amount of physical bravery of those acts with the terrible heritage of slavery, and worse with the treatment of people of color during Reconstruction and the days of the White League. The White League was founded right in this area (of Louisiana), and it was worse than the Klan.

As Aaron Broussard comes to understand about their family in The Jealous Kind, never in human history have so many brave men made such sacrifices for such an iniquitous cause.

Was the book’s politician Jimmy Nightingale, with his rabble-rousing speeches and slick dishonesty, ripped from the headlines?

As William Butler Yeats wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." He caught modern times perfectly with that couplet.

Jimmy Nightingale is a prototypical kind of character. He’s a demagogue. His forebears are George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy and Huey Long. I started to write the book at the beginning of 2016, maybe even before. It was well before the last presidential election.

As Dave points out, John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath that the issue is not the demagogue. The issue is our willingness to give up our judgment, to do things contrary to our entire system of values. I never thought I’d see it happen again in my lifetime.

I think what we’re seeing today is an aberration, and I hope it will be seen that way in the future. What happened was highly improbable; mistakes were made both by individuals and groups of people, just terrible decisions.

There’s an element of evil in this, though. There is the inculcation of fear and suspicion of others, the deliberate incitement of violence, the willingness to court neofascists that we’ve seen.

My relatives fought in World War II. Now we have a man in office who has lauded Benito Mussolini. There has been nothing in our history like this. I cannot understand it. It’s a bloody shame.

In Robicheaux, Dave’s daughter, who shares a first name and a novelist’s career with your own daughter Alafair Burke, gets involved with working on a movie based on Levon’s book and produced by a monster of a mobster named Tony Nemo. Did you draw from your own experiences with Hollywood for that part of the plot?

You know, my daughter has a book coming out in January, too (The Wife, Jan. 23).

What I describe about Hollywood is based on the little experience I have. I like what Hemingway said about his relationship to Hollywood. He said, "It’s really easy. I put my book in the car, drive from Key West to the California line, and throw my book across the state line. They throw me a suitcase full of money, and I go home."

I had a grand time myself. I worked with Bertrand Tavernier, the French director and a fine fellow (on the 2009 movie In the Electric Mist). He’d been making movies for 50 years, and he knew everybody and told wonderful stories.

If you end up with a screenwriting contract, though, you find it’s like trying to play guitar with handcuffs on. I worked on two screenplays, and it’s really hard.

Do you feel more at home among crime fiction novelists?

One of the great things about the community of crime writers is that they’re all really good people. And they don’t take themselves too seriously. Michael Connelly, he’s a fine fellow. Lee Child, John Grisham, Sue Grafton. Stephen King is another one. They’re just extraordinarily generous people, and they don’t talk about it.

The crime novel is like the sociological novel of the 1930s. (Writers like James Cain and Raymond Chandler) opened the door to all kinds of literary themes. The private investigator stuff is just structural. They wrote about poverty, sources of crime, social injustice. It’s not a separate category of literature. And so many of them write such beautiful prose.

Will readers see Dave in another novel?

I’m already at work on it. The title will be Ball and Chain, the same as the signature song of Big Mama Thornton. Janis Joplin sang it, too.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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