Crusader’s Cross by James Lee Burke
The romance is on again. Rebel Voice and James Lee have renewed their tempestuous relationship but on a day by day basis. If Jamesy starts to act the bollox, then he’s getting the chop.
Dave Robicheaux is again to the fore in this installment, book 14 in the popular series. This time we find the south Louisiana detective looking into an old case of a vanished prostitute who Dave and his brother Jimmy encountered when they were teenagers working on the oilfields of the Texas Gulf.
Ida Durbin was a freckled-faced beauty who risked her own life to save those of both Dave and Jimmy when they were under attack from a shark. Jimmy fell in love with Ida, only to discover that she worked in a house of ill-repute, which today would be one description for the White House.
Ida agreed to run away with Jimmy only to mysteriously disappear from the bus station. Although the young Robicheaux lads reported her apparent abduction to the cops, nothing was done. But Jimmy never forget the gallant lass who saved his life and won his heart.
Fast forward more than 40 years and Dave is called to the death-bed of a known sadistic thug who reveals that he saw Ida in an old shack after she was taken that fateful day. Dave begins to investigate and uncovers a complex web of deceit and death that stretches from Florida to Louisiana to Texas.
Initially, we encounter a Dave Robicheaux who is not a member of the New Iberia police department. His family house has burned down and his beloved wife, Bootsie, is dead. Dave’s life is hanging by a thread as he struggles to find a place for himself, whilst staying away from the addictive temptations of the bottle.
When his former colleague and now sheriff, Helen, offers him his old job back, he jumps at the chance and is immediately assigned to track down a serial killer with a penchant for completely destroying his victim’s bodies. But Dave is a contrary old coonass (apparently a colloquialism for Cajuns) and refuses to stop his investigation into the disappearance of Ida Durbin. Cue some great action.
Clete Purcell again shows up as Dave’s loyal-to-a-fault buddy. Clete is a ticket. He never fails to impress with his no nonsense approach to dealing with the bad guys. He is the wild card to Dave’s often straight-man act. They make quite the pair.
In this story we are introduced to Molly Boyle, the red-haired apprentice nun who really puts the horn on the roguish Robicheaux. Who would have thunk it? A nunesque character with an Irish name and red hair (and a fiery temper to boot). James Lee is really rolling out the stereotypes with this one. I won’t criticize him too much though, as Molly is a likeable and engaging addition to the cast of New Iberia.
Then there are the Chalons, the old money family with questionable morality and a scandalous history. Dave really does not like the Chalons, especially Val, the suave, dickhead TV presenter with a seriously bad attitude. Trouble’s a brewing’ on the bayou.
As Dave’s investigation deepens, the various strands of the tale begin to weave together in a way that only James Lee Burke can manage effectively. It’s seamless, the manner in which the author takes the separate threads and twists them together to pull the reader further and faster into the story.
Ida, Jimmy, Clete, the Chalons, Lou Kale, Johnny the contract killer, Andre Bergeron and his son Tee Bleu and, of course, Molly, they all have a role to play in the plot and keep the reader guessing as to who is who and what kinds of people they really are. And in the background, we watch as Dave beats up on himself over the bad shit in his life, whilst struggling to forget about the horrors of his time spent as a member of the US colonial forces in Vietnam. It’s a solid concoction, and addictive.
If I have to offer some criticism of Crusader’s Cross, and I really feel that I should, then it would be that old chestnut of Dave strolling around southern Louisiana with all the concern of the Dude Lebowski. For fuck’s sake, the place is living with serial killers and perverts and all manner of ne’er-do-wells. He has a gun, more than one as it happens, yet he continually leaves them inside the house, or in his holster, and this results in his getting the unholy shit kicked out of him on more than one occasion. There is no way that Dave Robicheaux should get a low premium on his life insurance. He’s a fucking liability.
Dave’s nonchalance may be irritating and even inconsistent with his role in life, but Burke’s writing is so good that it’s not that intrusive, at least not unless you’re a pedantic Irish hure who subscribes to the philosophy that there’s no point in taking on the bad guys if you’re going to leave yourself vulnerable at every opportunity. Dave seems to suffer from self-loathing, as he is often attacked when it should be unnecessary. I despair. I really do. Hopefully Molly will knock some sense into him in the manner of that one from the Blues Brothers… (Sister Squeezethescrote, I believe she was called).
This offering from Burke’s has got it all. His prose is, yet again, pure poetry. His depictions of the Texas and Louisiana landscapes are enchanting, and his presentations of the people there are thorough and captivating. Burke, you ole dog, you did it again. So what will it be this time, roses or lilies? Go easy on us, you dirty brute.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Yet another masterclass in the art of writing a novel. Harlan Coben take note.