Subscribe now for as low as $4

From my bookshelf to yours: Murder mystery fascinating

Maureen Cooke

James Lee Burke’s fictional detective Dave Roicheaux is back in “The New Iberia Blues” (2019).

Once again, as in all Robicheaux tales, there is trouble on the Louisiana bayou, specifically in the Iberia Parish, where the detective works.

This time the trouble involves two recent residents: one, a condemned murderer, Hugo Tillinger, who has escaped from a Texas prison and is now hiding in the parish; the other, a Hollywood director, Desmond Cormier, who has returned to his hometown of Iberia to make a movie.

Either, or perhaps neither, may be responsible for several brutal murders, including the crucifixion of a young black woman. This crucifixion launches the plot of “The New Iberia Blues.”

The woman, the daughter of a local minister, was a volunteer for the Innocence Project, working to free Tillinger. Does that connection give Tillinger a motive to kill her?

Or does it give Cormier a motive? Or maybe someone else.

Maybe actor Antione Butterworth, hitman Smiley Wimple or love interest and newly assigned detective Bailey Ribbons. As the story unfolds, several other murders occur, each more brutal and puzzling than the first.

Who, of all the characters, has the motivation to kill so many? Figuring out a killer’s identity is what keeps mystery fans reading, and on this level, the book excels.

However, the Robicheaux series, which began in 1987 with “The Neon Rain,” has never been focused solely on identifying a killer or unraveling a mystery.

Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic and a Vietnam vet, plagued by the ghosts of his past, the people he’s killed, the people he’s lost.

The series, similar to the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald, consistently delves into the past to explain the present. Characters’ actions from 10, 20 or 30 years ago motivate their current actions.

Unlike Macdonald, Burke explores the history of the region, as well as his characters’ pasts. “The New Iberia Blues” is no exception. The book references the area’s Civil War history, slavery and segregation.

Burke exposes his reader to more than just a mystery well-told. He includes the vernacular of the area — Jambalaya, pirogue and noble mon — multiple literary references, as well as engaging prose.

I got lost in the Iberia parish as I caught up on the recurring characters’ lives, that of his former partner Clete Purcell, his boss Helen Soileau and his daughter Alifair.

I reveled in sentences, such as Robicheaux telling one of the movie people: “Louisiana is America’s answer to Guatemala. Our legal system is a joke. Our legislature is a mental asylum. How’d you like to spend a few days in our parish prison?”

I loved this book. I’ve been reading Burke’s work for years, and “The New Iberia Blues” pulled me right back into Robicheaux’s world.

I can’t recommend Burke’s work, including “The New Iberia Blues,” to everyone. His topics are brutal, and his prose is graphic; not everyone enjoys that kind of reading. But for those who may be fans of, say, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” His work is not to be missed.

(Maureen Cooke has been writing, editing and teaching others to write for the past 30 years. Currently, she’s working on a mystery novel and a memoir. She’s a member of the Corrales Writers’ Group)