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  • TITLE: Black Cherry Blues
  • AUTHOR: James Lee Burke
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1989
  • GENRE:Mystery & Crime
  • AWARDS: Edgar & Grand Prix de Littérature Policière

!!!!!SPOILERS!!!!LEAVE!!!!SPOILERS!!!!YOU SHOULDN'T BE HERE ANYWAY!!!SPOILERS!!!!LEAVE!!!!

 

It was turning cold. I helped her finish spreading manure in her vegetable patch, then said good-bye and latched the wooden gate behind me. The sky was overcast and gray now. She looked small and alone with her hoe, in her dirt yard, in the wind that blew down off the backbone of the world.

p. 160

 

I decided it was time to read a local authorJL Burke lives in Lolo, 12 miles awaywith a local setting, being Missoula, Montana. As a rule, I start scaling down my trust and interest in a writer when he hits over a dozen novels. James Lee Burke has written 37 to date, of which this is number 9. The leading quote illustrates the potency of his prose. I'm seriously considering reading his whole oeuvre.

The setup is the typical procedural found in most crime novels. The protagonist is crusty but benign, tough but tender. Bad men show up and do bad things. The seeker hero hunts them down and delivers a just justice. There's always a snake in the grass. And it's the way the snake turns and tangles all the characters that make the read successful or not. Cliche's abound. But author Burke twists them around his typing finger. For instance, Dave Robicheauxtee-totaling, ex-homicide, ex-New Orleans detectiveis raising a little girl named Alafair who lost her parents escaping a bloody regime change in San Salvador. With some local Cajuns, they retire and run a fish camp in the swamp of Bayou Teche, somewhere in southern Louisiana. He calls his adopted 1st grader "little guy" and takes her with him on the ensuing monster hunt. In Missoula when the search gets gritty, he hands Alafair off to her school teacher, Tess Regan, as a protective move.

Tess is the good Catholic girl, the epitome of the marryin' kind. She's offended yet drawn to Dave's unvarnished manner. She's the prairie wife of the homestead, a cliche in the path of rough times ahead. Another female, Dave's dead wife Anne, comes to him in soothing vision, trading Dave with inspiration and confidence for guilt and dubiety. She's pioneering nurturance. "My Mennonite girl, sewn together from cornflowers and bluebonnets"(p.245). And, leaving the Goddess category behind, there's Darlene, the hooker with a heart of tarnished you-know-what; the half-baked yet well-done, silently-smoldering enigmatic caregiver who is one of the guys, but with fallopian tubes. She's the moll who gets cacked within the novel, joining offstage the earlier and nameless "twenty-two-year-old . . .'female companion'"(p.28) of Dave's long-time confederate, Dixie Lee Pugh.

The whole novel flies under this guy's flag, simply because he asks Dave for help. You see, Dixie's a now-unfamous rock-a-billy who is currently under the thumb of made man/mad man Sally Dee, or Sal the Duck. He's securing oil & gas leases on the eastern slope of the Rockies. Corporate from Star Drilling sends two button men to deal with any protesters and Dixie hears them discussing murders they did in Montana. Well, Robicheaux tries to intercede, but things get complicated when he's arrested for gutting one of them in the bathroom like an unwilling organ donor. Dave goes after Harry Mapesthe only witness and actual killer of his goon friend, becoming the linchpin to the caseinto Missoula and Flathead Lake territory where Sally Dee has a lakeshore mansion. And Sal is the kind of psycho/thug who's watched Scarface too many times. This is the point where Robicheaux gets to beat and break bad characters, help out dubious ones, protect the women and bystanders, and . . .solvenot stopall malfeasances. He sends people to the "places where the carrion birds clatter"(p.47).

Considering the flippancy of my review, you'd think I didn't like this novelor worsethought it was mediocre. Not true. Author Burke has a clipped, engaging writing style. His dialogue is crisp and decisive. Not much nuance, but his underbelly locution is "the dirty boogie out there, and all the cats are humping to it in three-quarter time"(p.44). He also seems quite traditional handling skirted characters. Dave Robicheaux is the dessert man; he jelly-rolls women in powdered sugar and slaps back all sticky, roving hands. "Nobody shakes ole Streak's [Robicheaux] cookie bag. They could strike matches on your soul and not make you flinch"(p.173).

 

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