Dave Robicheaux: A Character Sketch

We kick off 2012 with a blast from the past: two early Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke, now available as eBooks: A MORNING FOR FLAMINGOS and BLACK CHERRY BLUES. Keep reading for a short character sketch of Robicheaux. This character sketch was originally published on ThrillingDetective.com.

New Orleans Police Department detective screw-up turned New Iberia, LA Police Detective DAVE ROBICHEAUX is the Great Lost P.I , no matter whether he wears a badge or not. For all the attention he pays to the regulations, it’s a wonder he’s a cop at all.

The guy just doesn’t fit in, doesn’t follow the rules, takes the law into his own hands when it suits him, and gets personally involved in every case he’s ever worked on, it seems. And he doesn’t give a fuck. And yet, somehow, despite the odds, he’s still a cop. Author James Lee Burke even lets him be a private op for a while, teaming him up with his former NOPD partner Cleetus, but then he let it slide. Too bad — Dave is a natural P.I.

Burke writes like a dream, offering a keenly evocative sense of place rarely matched in crime fiction (the closest I can come up with is Chandler’s Los Angeles), and his depictions of the the back roads and bayous of rural Loiusiana verge on poetry. You can smell the bayous, taste the spices of the food, hear the wind whistle through the trees and the canebreaks.

Sure, the series has at times devolved into formula. The number of ex-girlfriends wandering back into Dave’s life, desperately needing his help, for example, is staggering. And every book seems to have a scene where Batiste, Dave’s handyman, heading down to the boathouse to prep the barbeque for the day while Dave slurps an ice-cold Dr. Pepper, watching the condensation bead on the can, as the sun burns off the mist rising on the bayou.

And ever since the pivotal and genre-hopping In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead (1993), in which Dave, having fallen off the wagon, begins to believe a dead Civil War general is guiding him from the grave, one might quibble that there have been a few too many dead people popping up in the books to offer him help on his cases.

But that’s really nitpicking, because when he’s on his game, Burke is a powerful and masterful writer. No matter how many times he describes that boathouse scene, my mouth still starts to watering, and I swear I can almost smell the bittersweet woodsmoke. And every dead person that refuses to stay dead is just one more reminder that the past is always with us, and that even the most damned of us might, just might, have a shot at redemption.

Kevin Burton Smith is the Editor/Founder of TheThrillingDetective.com where this piece was originally published.