Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues won the Edgar Award for best novel when it came out. I haven’t read the competition, but it seems well earned. Burke’s prose style is one of the best going regardless of genre. This carries a lot of darkness with flawed characters, an interesting moralistic streak and some good insight into the process of grief. This is the third Dave Robicheaux novel. I read a couple of his earlier novels before the crime novels (The Lost Get Back Boogie and Lay Down My Sword and Shield), and while he adopted crime tropes his writing style remained very much the same once he moved into the genre.

I’ve said it before here, I’m a sucker for Catholic novelists. Walker Percy was another writer I loved and I think his work makes for an interesting comparison to Burke’s. Both are rooted in a very strong sense of place, both in New Orleans. I don’t know how that would play to a New Orleanian, but from the outside it seems authentic. They both write great prose and have some really good insight. Percy tended to bring a low key almost hidden Catholic perspective into examinations of existentialist themes (IE how to navigate a normal Wednesday afternoon), whereas Burke’s Catholicism is closer to the surface and seems in large part paired with a 12-step program sense of trying to break a cycle of alcoholism and grief. Both deal with the darkness of the world, Percy in existentialist and semiotic/linguistic terms, Burke in noir. Both take on race in the south head on. These accounts may read jarringly to readers 30-50 years on, but I feel safe in saying that both had their hearts in the right place for the most part. Neither seems to have much use for Catholic proscriptions against extramarital sex, though both seem uncomfortable with homosexuality. I’m most uncomfortable with the women in their books. I would certainly not want to be a female character in a Burke novel. Percy’s at least had a higher survival rate. All of these things are wrapped up with their religious beliefs. No longer sharing the faith (I was never Catholic, but was once devout), I still love their work as I’m fascinated by people working out their religion in fiction, even if I’m uncomfortable with aspects of their ideologies.

At the opening of Black Cherry Blues, Robicheaux has a dream in which he relives the death of his wife from the previous novel. She died at the hands of some criminals who were after him. He feels deep guilt and grief about this. Shortly afterwards, he runs into an old college roommate, Dixie Lee Pugh, a troubled former Rockabilly star who seems to have been modeled at least partially on Jerry Lee Lewis. Soon Dixie Lee pulls Robicheaux into his problems. Robicheaux ends up accused of murder. Out on bail he follows Dixie Lee up to Montana to try to clear his name and gets pulled further into conflict with some heavy duty (at least in their own minds) criminals. To say more could spoil the book.

Burke’s style and his approach to the heart of noir darkness are compelling. While he is a much more lush prose writer than Elmore Leonard, he has a similarly good ear for dialog, and a similar approach to character driven action. His plots are believable. In my post on the last Burke novel I mentioned how his protagonists seem to be driven, at least in part, by the need to be told that they are good. Told that despite their rage, their violence and their failings that they are at core decent humans. In this book that was more explicit than previous. Here he posits the idea that in order for a person to be good, someone else has to believe they are or are capable of being so. I’m pondering the degree to which I agree with that, but as motivation for a character fighting his most dangerous urges in violent situations it makes for compelling motivation and plot. I think I still like the Hackberry Holland books I’ve read more than the Robicheaux, but I would recommend both to anyone interested in religiously tinged dark crime noir. It’s a toss up between this one and The Neon Rain for which of the three Robicheaux books I’ve read I like best. I see why this won awards.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 32/75

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