The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke
This is book 1 in the Dave Robicheaux series and was first published way back in 1987 when mullets were the rage everywhere but in the hallowed halls of Rebel Voice.
In The Neon Rain, we, the dedicated followers of the southern Louisiana police detective, get to meet our fictional friends for the first time and what a revelation it is. Dave Robicheaux is still a New Orleans homicide cop, with Rebel Voice favourite, Clete Purcell, as his partner. It is also in The Neon Rain that Robicheaux first meets Annie, destined to be his second wife. Dave goes through wives the way Donald Trump goes through orange make-up and hair.
It begins with a visit to Angola prison where Dave speaks with Johnny Massina, a hit man due for a spell on Ole Sparky. Massina respects Dave and so reveals to him the existence of a contract that has been taken out on the detective’s life. Robicheaux comes to suspect that it is all connected to his discovery of the corpse of a young black woman, found as Dave was fishing on the bayou.
His investigations lead him to a sinister figure in the form of Julio Segura, a Nicaraguan with a bloody past. Segura was closely acquainted with the dead woman. Unfortunately for Robicheaux, the nasty dude is also on familiar terms with an assortment of nefarious individuals, some of whom are tied to, or are in, the CIA. It begins to appear as of Dave has stepped into some serious shit and is sinking up to his Cajun neck in it.
In what was to become a trademark of James Lee Burke, the Federal authorities are portrayed in this book as a mixed bunch. We meet the idealist ATF agent, Sam Fitzpatrick, who begrudgingly decides to help Robicheaux as the powers-that-be start to pressure him into dropping his investigations. But, for every decent Fed, there are many more who are either callous or downright evil. Sam Fitzpatrick becomes a maverick in his own organisation precisely because of his inherent good.
Clete Purcell’s role in The Neon Rain is something of a surprise, even if the portents are clear from reading the proceeding episodes of this series, most of which have been reviewed previously on Rebel Voice. I realize that the timelines are all over the place with that last statement but will leave it in so that your brains might get some further exercise.
Clete and Dave are partners and friends, but there’s much about Clete that Dave doesn’t know and ultimately regrets finding out. It’s interesting to see how their relationship is shaped at the beginning, and subsequently how it developed to what it became in later books. I guess any surprise in Clete’s part in The Neon Rain is added to by the fact that Rebel Voice read the series pretty much backwards. Each novel is fairly stand-alone though, so don’t sweat it if you have employed the same approach.
No Robicheaux story would be complete without a host of the worst villains possible, and The Neon Rain doesn’t disappoint in that respect. Segura has found some nasty bedfellows in the form of Philip Murphy (note how many Irish surnames are in this novel), a shadowy spook involved in US inspired regime change in Central America, the kind of change that involves raping nuns and murdering entire villages using right-wing proxies. We also have the displeasure of meeting Bobby Joe Starkweather, a crazed military veteran turned serial killer, and Erik, known to Dave as the ‘little Israeli’. Robicheaux finds himself in a life and death battle with this deadly cabal as the Feds continually squeeze his official bollocks.
It’s refreshing to read the negative manner in which James Lee Burke has presented the Israeli character to the reader. Too many authors today buy fully into the fallacious narrative that states that the sun must rise and set in the asshole of an Israeli. Remember, this is the rogue state that slaughtered more than 500 children in Gaza in 2014. 180 of those children were aged 5 years or younger. Burke was obviously well clued in to the truth about the Israeli state and its agents. As mentioned, The Neon Rain was published in 1987.
The story does also take serious issue with the activities of right-wing mercenaries in Latin America. Burke’s position on this matter is more mature and better informed than many of his contemporaries. Atrocities involving the CIA are not ignored by Burke throughout the Robicheaux series. It’s of interest to read how both US and Israeli agents are linked to such murderous actions in this story. Maith thú James Lee – good on you.
The other constant in the Robicheaux series is the presence of the Italian-American mafia. In this first instalment, we encounter the much referenced Didi Gee, head of the local Mob. Didi Gee dines on occasion with Dave’s much-loved half-brother, Jimmy ‘The Gent’. Jimmy is understandably concerned for his older brother’s safety and approaches the Italian mobster for assistance. Unfortunately, Jimmy gets in over his head. What’s the world coming to when you can’t trust a psychopathic Mob boss?
As mentioned, the love interest for our horny Cajun lothario is school teacher, Annie Mallard, who doubles as a classical musician in her spare time. Where are all these women when a man needs to settle down to raise a mess of young ‘uns? Robicheaux certainly can attract them. Annie is not your typical cop’s gal from Louisiana though. For one thing she’s a Mennonite pacifist from Kansas. For another, she is courageous yet incredibly humble. Telling it straight, she’s too damn good for Dave and would have been better off with his brother Jimmy – he’s a gent.
Gun-play, torture, politics, social commentary and enough twists and turns to make you grab a barf-bag, The Neon Rain is a great book that commands and holds the reader’s attention. It’s an educational tool for anyone interested in the grittier side of New Orleans’ life. The characters are strong and engaging, the settings vivid and enticing. In short, it is a typical Robicheaux novel. If you want to avoid Rebel Voice‘s haphazard approach to this wonderful series, then this is definitely the book for you. As my old Irish granny used to say, it’s always best to start at the beginning. Now go and kill that hen.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly entertaining start to the Dave Robicheaux series, and a strong indicator of the high standards that are to follow in the rest.