Tuesday, November 10, 2020

A Private Cathedral (Dave Robicheaux #23)

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books have always seemed darker and more violent to me than most of the other popular detective series of the day. Considering what Dave Robicheaux and his blood brother Clete Purcel have endured over the first twenty-two books of the series, they are lucky to still be standing, much less breathing. I have been reading the Robicheaux books as each of them is published all the way back to the third book in the series, Black Cherry Blues, so I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from A Private Cathedral when it comes to violence, mysticism, visions, and the like. Boy, was I wrong, because A Private Cathedral reaches a whole new level of darkness and evil brutality.

As the novel opens, Dave Robicheaux is a lonely man living with several cats and Tripod, his pet raccoon. The twice-married Robicheaux has by now been twice-widowed, and he is still grieving the loss of both women. Alafair, his daughter, is in school a long way from New Iberia, Louisiana, and Robicheaux misses her terribly, too. He’s lost his badge, and is waiting on investigators to decide if deserves to get it back (not that that much slows a man like Dave Robicheaux down). And now, things are going to get much, much worse for the “Bobbsey Twins,” Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel. 

There are two major crime families in the New Iberia area, the Shondells and the Balangies, and they hate each other’s guts. However, in order to avoid a bloodbath, it’s important that the two families figure out a way to keep the balance of power from being tipped too heavily in favor of one or the other of them. When Isolde Balangie, the teen-aged step-daughter of the Balangie kingpin, tells Dave one day that she is being delivered to Mark Shondell, head of the Shondell family, he understands that some kind of deal has been struck between the two families. But it all smells too much like human-trafficking for Dave to ignore what he’s been told and what he already knows about Mark Shondell.

In a Romeo and Juliet kind of twist, Isolde Balangie soon disappears along with Mark Shondell’s nephew Johnny. Dave knows that can’t be part of the families’ masterplan, so he wants to find them before anyone else does. Not only won’t that be easy, it will result in Dave and Clete having to run and hide from what appears to be a time-traveling hitman from the bowels of hell, a “man” who travels on a ghost ship, can induce traumatizing hallucinations, and strike directly at the weak spots of his prey. Oh…and he doesn’t have a nose, does have beady little eyes, and from the color of his skin may just be more reptile than human. 

So, yes, A Private Cathedral requires a huge leap of suspended disbelief by the reader if it is to be taken seriously. But I don’t read Dave Robicheaux novels just for the plot; I read them to get inside Dave’s head - and sometimes inside Clete’s - in order to understand better what makes him tick. They are both “White Knights” despite their personal habits and their willingness to bend the law however much it takes to make sure that the good guys win in the end. They are both alcoholics, but only Dave seems to ever be on the wagon. They are both scarred by their mutual experiences in Vietnam. They are both Cajuns who believe in spirits, ghosts, and visions in a way that others will never understand. And, somehow, they are now two old men covered in battle scars from the past who have survived way longer than either ever expected to survive.

They are both rather brilliant, introspective men, although Clete hides it better than Dave. Dave describes Clete as “a closet bibliophile” who has “stored hundreds of paperback books he bought in secondhand stores and yard sales, most of them about American history and the War Between the States.” He reads and re-reads them. Dave, on the other hand, often speaks like a man with both a classical education and an education in the classics. He can’t hide his true character the way that Clete hides his own.

What worries me a little about A Private Cathedral is what seems to be a personal message from Dave to his admiring audience of readers. On the novel’s last page, Dave says:

“I didn’t want to hear any more of the story. I had already put aside the unhappiness of the past and no longer wanted to probe the shadows of the heart or the evil that men do. It was time to lay down my sword and shield and study war no more.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Dave is talking only about the Balangies and the Shondells or not. After all, James Lee Burke is 83 years old now, and one day we will have read the final chapter in the story of the Bobbsey Twins. And, honestly, Dave and Clete haven’t been acting their ages for a long time - Vietnam veterans must all be at least 70 years old now, and our heroes have hardly lost a step - but then again, neither has Burke. They are all still indestructible in the long run.

James Lee Burke


  1. I read a few books in this series, absolutely 'loved' the setting, I mean stunning descriptions of that part of Louisiana. What I didn't love was the way every book had some big-time hoodlum who needed bringing down and there seemed to be no end to them. It got a bit samey for me though my husband doesn't feel that way and still reads them. Heavens, is James Lee Burke 83? I had no idea.

    1. I do chuckle sometimes to think that a little town like New Iberia, Louisiana, has that many murders, prostitutes, drug addicts, mob bosses, and big-time show business people around, Cath. It does require me to suspend my disbelief, especially since I'm somewhat familiar with the real town and region. But then again, that's sort of the case for any series set in one or two locals...I've felt the same way about Three Pines sometimes.

  2. I haven't read Burke in a long time. I have to admit I had one of his recent books, but couldn't get past a few pages. Maybe I missed too many books in between.

    1. Robicheaux has such a long, complicated history at this point that I can't imagine keeping up with it if you try to read the books out of order. Even then, with a wait between books that is often well over a year, I find it hard to remember how the last book ended so that I can start the new one. I sometimes even reread the last chapter or two of the previous book so that I can more comfortably jump into the new one.