Update: On July 31, author James Lee Burke’s daughter Pamala Burke McDavid died unexpectedly, of natural causes. Pamala lived near her parents in Montana and worked closely with her father. You can read Burke’s memorial to her here.
For Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, the veil between worlds has always been shimmeringly thin. Whether it’s a pirogue bearing the smiling ghosts of his parents down the bayou or a troop of boys in butternut from a war lost a century and a half ago marching out of the mist, he takes the other side in stride.
In A Private Cathedral, Dave tumbles through that veil into a world of myth and mystery that’s as violent as the one we call real.
This is the 23rd novel about Robicheaux by the brilliant James Lee Burke, and Burke’s 40th book. Dave is a detective, sometimes on police forces in New Orleans and New Iberia, sometimes between official statuses, always unstoppable in his defense of underdogs and pursuit of justice, and always at war with his own violent urges.
A Private Cathedral completes what Burke calls the Louisiana trilogy, after Robicheaux and The New Iberia Blues. This book moves back in time to around the turn of the 20th century, in the days before 9/11. Dave is badgeless, having been suspended from the New Iberia police. He’s twice widowed and hasn’t yet met his third wife, and his daughter has left home to go to college. He’s struggling with deep grief and loneliness on top of the psychic damage wrought by his service in Vietnam. His alcoholism is under control, but barely.
Idling away an evening in Texas before visiting a prisoner there, Dave runs into a girl from New Iberia. Isolde Balangie is the stepdaughter of a notorious mobster named Adonis Balangie. An eerily beautiful teenager with white-blond hair and “skin the color of chalk,” she’s there to see a performance by another young person Dave knows, a singer named Johnny Shondell. Like Isolde’s, Johnny’s family is rich and corrupt — and the families hate each other.
Isolde tells Dave that the feud between the Balangies and the Shondells goes back 400 years, before either family came to Louisiana. “They burned my ancestor. ... At the stake. In chains. They put nails through his mouth so he couldn’t talk. Then they made him suffer as much as they could.”
Yet there she is, and not as a fan, although Johnny glows with a transcendental talent. She’s there because Johnny is “delivering me to his uncle Mark” — an enigmatic declaration that will plunge Dave into a perilous mission to rescue her and to unravel the truth about the two families.
Mark Shondell graduated from the Sorbonne and had a roller coaster career as a Hollywood producer. He’s handsome and charismatic in person, but, Dave tells us, he and his family are “millionaire liars and bums.” Mark Shondell also has close ties to white supremacists; he has disturbing political interests in “a rich-boy gutter rat ... mixed up with the Russian mafia” and the money to feed those interests. The rumors about his sexual proclivities are just as ugly.
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Taking on the Balangies and Shondells requires help, and as always Dave turns to his best friend and brother in arms, Clete Purcel. A former cop of huge appetites and passions, Clete is “the trickster of folklore, a modern Sancho Panza, a quasi-psychotic jarhead who did two tours in Vietnam and came home with the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts and memories he shared with no one.”
The two men always have each other’s backs, but there are signs this case is unique. After a couple of Shondell’s employees are gruesomely murdered, Dave tells Clete:
“I’m having ‘warning dreams.’ Stormy seas, a galleon with convicts chained to the oars. They look like they’re in hell.”
“You just scared the s--- out of me.”
“I’ve had the same dream.”
That psychic bond might come in handy. They soon discover that they also have to contend with Gideon Richetti, an assassin with a face like a snake’s who might have been plying his lethal trade for centuries. Dave mentions several times in A Private Cathedral that he’s long tried to understand the origins of human cruelty; Gideon might teach him more than he bargained for.
Even in the midst of the most intense cases, Dave has been given to unwise romantic entanglement. This time he gets involved with both Adonis’ mistress, Leslie Rosenberg, and his wife (or maybe she’s not), Penelope, who might be the most mysterious person in the whole crew. How dangerous is that? Clete is worried about Dave losing control, instead of the other way around, which means they’re both in trouble.
Dave tells us that “ever since Clete and I had gotten involved with the Shondell and Balangie families, we had been confronted with situations and people and aberrant behavior that made no sense, and I believed that before it was over, we would experience much worse and that no one would ever accept the story we told about it.” In the hands of a master like Burke, that story is irresistible.
A Private Cathedral
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $28
James Lee Burke will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Burke, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to firstname.lastname@example.org.