Created by James Lee Burke
New Orleans Police Department detective screw-up turned small town cop in New Iberia, Louisiana, DAVE ROBICHEAUX is the Great Lost P.I., no matter whether he wears a badge or not. For all the attention he pays to the regulations, it's a wonder he's a cop at all.
The guy just doesn't fit in, doesn't follow the rules, takes the law into his own hands when it suits him, and gets personally involved in every case he's ever worked on, it seems. And he doesn't give a fuck. And yet, somehow, despite the odds, he's still a cop; perhaps the only officer in the rinky dink department he works for who has actual police experience. Author James Lee Burke even lets him be a private op for a while, teaming him up with his former NOPD partner Cleetus, but then he let it slide. Too bad -- Dave is a natural P.I.
He is also one of the most haunted of private eyes, at first figuratively and later literally, but Burke manages to pull it off with skill and passion, offering a keenly evocative sense of time and place rarely matched in crime fiction (the closest I can come up with is Chandler's Los Angeles), and his depictions of the the back roads and bayous of rural Loiusiana verge on poetry. You can smell the bayous, taste the spices of the food, and feel a sense of unease as the wind whistles through the trees and the canebreaks.
Sure, the series has at times devolved into formula. The number of ex-girlfriends wandering back into Dave's life, desperately needing his help, for example, is staggering. And every book seems to have a scene where Batiste, Dave's handyman, heading down to the boathouse to prep the barbeque for the day while Dave slurps an ice-cold Dr. Pepper, watching the condensation bead on the can, as the sun burns off the mist rising on the bayou.
And ever since the pivotal and genre-hopping In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead (1993), in which Dave, having fallen off the wagon, begins to believe a dead Civil War general is guiding him from the grave, one might quibble that there have been a few too many dead people popping up in the books to offer him help on his cases.
But that's really nitpicking, because when he's on his game, Burke is a powerful and masterful writer. No matter how many times he describes that boathouse scene, my mouth still starts to watering, and I swear I can almost smell the bittersweet woodsmoke. And every dead person that refuses to stay dead is just one more reminder that the past is always with us, and that even the most damned of us might, just might, have a shot at redemption.
* * * * *
The second book in the series, Heaven's Prisoners (1988), was made into 1996 film starring Alec Baldwin as Dave, but the results were far from satisfying. All of Burke's sensuous evocation of the bayous is missing -- the film could have been shot in New Jersey. And Baldwin, one of the producers, was just completely miscast. Rumours that Tommy Lee Jones had purchased the film rights for a couple of Burke novels, Dixie City Jam (1994) and In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead proved to be accurate, but the result, In the Electric Mist (2009) proved to be disappointing. Although ragged, cragged Jones was well cast, director Bertrand Tavernier seemed to envision the multidimensional, nuanced Dave as a sort of Cajun Mike Hammer.
James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgar Awards, is the author of over two dozen previous novels, including such New York Times bestsellers as Bitterroot, Purple Cane Road, Cimarron Rose, Jolie Blon's Bounce, and Dixie City Jam. He lives in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana. More recently, Burke has created another series, the Holland Family saga, which centers around troubled almost-PI, Deaf Smith, Texas defense lawyer Billy Bob Holland, who also occasionally gets advice from beyond the pale, and various members of his extended family who trace their roots back to a legendary, 19th century Texas Ranger, Hackberry Holland.
-- James Crumley
-- Keith Logan
Here's a sign of how well regarded this film was -- I spotted a copy in a bin boasting a sticker proclaiming "With Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives." Ouch.
Author and The Thrilling Detective Web Site contributor O'Neil De Noux is a former real-life police officer and private investigator. He currently writes the NOPD Detective Dino La Stanza police procedural series, and has written several stories about 1948 New Orleans private eye Lucien Caye.
ALSO OF INTEREST
A moving and powerful collection of non-crime short stories. But if you enjoy Robicheaux or Holland, or just great writing, there's much here to enjoy.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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