Dave Robicheaux is the last noble night. He is a man of innate goodness in a world of greed, corruption and evil. Yet, like Thomas Malory’s Lancelot, he is inherently flawed. He struggles daily to battle demons both without and within. For Robicheaux is also a man of violence, a recovering alcoholic and Viet Nam veteran, fighting to overcome his past while fending off the jousts of modern-day Louisiana.
Robicheaux, the protagonist of James Lee Burke’s long-running bayou crime series, first appeared in The Neon Rain (1987) as a troubled New Orleans police officer on his last legs with the force. Since then, he and his best friend, Cletus Purcel, a well-meaning (if dangerous) giant whose propensity for mischief (and, ultimately, violence) is surpassed only by his loyalty to Robicheaux, have tackled corrupt politicians, vicious and unethical businessmen and the New Orleans mob, all-the-while maintaining a degree of integrity which elevates them above their surroundings.
Over the course of twenty-three years and seventeen novels (including the 1989 Edgar Award winning Black Cherry Blues), Robicheaux has overcome family tragedy, relapses of alcoholism, malaria (stemming from his Viet Nam experience), Hurricane Katrina, physical torture and repeated attempts on his life. His journey through his own personal “Camelot” is often mystical – though never more than in 1993’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, where his unbeknownst consumption of Dr. Pepper laced with LSD leads Robicheaux to encounters and conversations with ghosts of confederate soldiers buried in a nearby camp.
It is this mixture of intrigue, violence and mysticism that makes the Robicheaux novels unique. And it is the superior writing of Burke that elevates them above the genre to the level of literature. Burke’s writing is lyrical, compassionate, human, and wonderfully descriptive. His characters are complex, conflicted personages, not stereotypes or cartoons. Even violent encounters are beautifully rendered, in the style of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.
Burke’s eighteenth Robicheaux novel, The Glass Rainbow, was released earlier this week. The initial reviews are good, but that is to be expected for Burke, whose reputation and following grows with each addition to the series. Robicheaux has aged over the years, his once physical prowess replaced by the aches and limitations of a man in his sixties. Yet, like many knights before him, he continues to fight. And, while his armor is dented and battered, it remains effectively unblemished, a beacon of light for all who join his quest for justice in the Louisiana bayou.