Every long-running crime series, I suspect, has a central feeling that keeps readers coming back for more. For James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, now over thirty years and twenty-two novels strong, it’s hard if not impossible to put to words what that feeling is except to say there’s a soulfulness to Robicheaux’s world, a strand of deep emotion that seems to act as the connective tissue between characters from all walks of life, the Louisiana terrain, and whatever new murder investigation is haunting Dave’s nights this go around. In Burke’s latest, New Iberia Blues, that investigation involves bodies set in religious poses washing up on the Louisiana shore, and on a crowd of brash and occasionally brilliant Hollywood types scouting the area for a new production taking advantage of the state’s booming film industry. Although really, that’s just the start of it. This being a Robicheaux novel, there’s also the cast of usual allies, eccentrics, and rogues, all swirling around the old detective Dave, who carefully guards his sobriety, his integrity, and those few loved ones he still has close by. The result is among Burke’s finest, most poignant novels. I took the opportunity of its release to ask Burke a few questions about his distrust of Hollywood, his deep respect for movies as an art form, and which of the many characters passing through Dave’s world have a special hold on Burke’s own imagination.
Dwyer Murphy: The film industry, and in particular the industry’s growing presence in Louisiana, plays a central role in the new book. Is that a dynamic you’ve been looking to explore or just a piece of serendipity that worked for this particular story?
James Lee Burke: I’m fascinated with film and the film industry and always have been. If there is a secular American cathedral, it’s Hollywood. We elect actors to public office, including the presidency, and simultaneously denigrate Hollywood. Before I get on the bus I’m determined to get my novel House of the Rising Sun on the screen.
I think the film industry is little different from any other corporate culture. The good people are like rodeo cowboys. If they didn’t get paid to come out of the chute with a hurricane between their legs, they would do it for free, and if that didn’t work, they would pay to do it.
Be careful about the flatterers. People are what they do, not what they say. Don’t give any producer a free option, no more than you would let an oil company drill on your land for free, damaging and lessening its value at no cost to themselves.
Movie-making and religion seem to take on a kind of equivalence here, at least for certain characters, like Desmond Cormier, the local kid made good as a Hollywood director. Do you see any connections between the two practices?
Yes, movie-making as well as all other forms of art represent the one area of the human experience in which we truly share the work of God, namely, the act of creation. It’s like dipping your hand into infinity. Every artist knows this, and he also knows that the gift comes from outside himself and the gift is there to make the world a better place.
Alcoholism and addiction are important strands to the books. So many of these characters battle with addiction of one kind or another. Do you see that condition as something that binds them and their world together?
Alcoholism and other forms of addiction seem to accompany the gift of creativity. But addiction is also the enemy of the artist. As Pablo Neruda once suggested, alcohol seems to free the writer from distraction, but if he continues to use it to write and to enhance his life he will destroy his art and then his mind and finally his soul.
In New Iberia Blues, Dave gets a new partner, Bailey Ribbons, a former middle school teacher who’s relatively new to the detective ranks. With a long-running series and a sometimes prickly protagonist like Dave, do you worry about introducing a new partner? Any concerns over upsetting Dave’s world, or is that the point?
The young detective with whom Dave is working is based on the character Clementine Carter in John Ford’s famous film about the passing of the American frontier. For Dave the young detective, Bailey Ribbons, is a symbol of a past world that seems to be disappearing.
Without giving too much away, how did Cathy Downs first figure in? Was that an actress who made a particularly strong impression on you at some point?
Like Dave, I saw My Darling Clementine in 1946, and even though I was a small boy I realized that I was looking at the prototype of the American frontier woman, one who is strong and loving and loyal and glows with humanity. The last scene of that great film has haunted me all these years.
So much of the action in New Iberia Blues is in and around Cypremort Point. There are some very distinct and haunting atmospherics described. I wondered what it was about that terrain, that area, that seized your imagination?
Yes, Cypremort is a beautiful spot where the southwest coast of Louisiana seems to slide into a saltwater kingdom, where Attakapa Indians paddled dugout canoes and Jean Lafitte moored his pirate fleet. I believe the spirits of Confederate and Union soldiers are still in those marshes and among the hummocks and the flooded woods and the miles and miles of wetlands that are among the most beautiful in the world. I think these spirits are there to warn us about our role as stewards of the earth. The southern coast of the state is literally washing away. Some brave souls, even corporate ones, are trying to save it. It’s a daunting task, particularly in our present political environment.
Of all the secondary characters and marginal figures who pass through Dave’s world, do you have a special affection for anyone in particular? I think many of your readers have their favorites.
My favorite secondary character in the Robicheaux series is Clete Purcel, the trickster from medieval folk myth. Clete gets even for the rest of us. Every high school has one like him. But Clete, like Dave, also has the values of Chaucer’s knight errant. He’s the protector of the poor and the vulnerable and those who suffer social injustice; and like Dave he gives voice to those who have none.