Book Review: “Clete” — A Whodunit in Masquerade

By Clea Simon

James Lee Burke’s Clete is Beat poetry, suffused with sadness and longing for all those sunsets now gone.

Clete: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke. Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pp., $28

It’s hard to stand next to perfection. Harder still when your own demons threaten to drag you down. But that’s the situation longtime series sidekick Clete Purcel has found himself in throughout James Lee Burke’s previous 22 Dave Robicheaux books, at least until now.

In all fairness, Burke’s usual protagonist, the New Orleans homicide detective (and fan favorite, if the New York Times bestseller list is to be believed) Robicheaux, has his flaws. A recovering alcoholic, the troubled Vietnam-era vet is prone to violence when he does fall off the wagon, and his tendency to see Confederate era ghosts is often at odds with his hard-headed approach to Southern Louisiana’s contemporary rough-and-tumble reality. But the series hero also has something of the white knight about him, always launching himself after some righteous cause. On top of that, his rugged good looks leave the scarred, sloppy, and overweight Purcel in the dust when it comes to women.

Being the sidekick of a man with a high moral code and severe PTSD has other challenges, too, as Purcel often has to assume the role of heavyweight to Robicheaux’s hero: the muscle who backs his buddy’s plays no matter what. But what makes life hard for the rotund sidekick also makes for a grand tale because a flawed and fallible protagonist takes more believable risks – and, perhaps, generates a touch more reader concern than usual this far into a series.

In Clete, listed as the 23d in the Robicheaux series, the big man is given his own quest and, in classic Burke fashion, it’s a doozy. The action kicks off when Clete’s pride and joy, a vintage Cadillac, is vandalized, a pair of hardcore hoods stripping the Eldorado down to the frame in Clete’s own lush New Orleans courtyard. Responding to the crime, Clete is beaten senseless and, before long, he’s defending not only his car and home, replete with both the plants and cats he loves, but also a gorgeous red-haired Bourbon Street dancer named Gracie Lamar and a trafficked Vietnamese woman who has been hooked on heroin, known only as Chen.

At stake is, possibly, the fate of the world in the form of a new biological agent called Leprechaun. That contagion is a classic McGuffin, the catalyst for the action. It hardly matters in the larger scheme of things. What matters is the hunt for its distributors, and Burke dishes up a lion’s share of suspects, each more baroque than the last. There’s the neo-Nazi with the full-body tattoos, the wealthy half-mad beauty convinced she’s a ’30s starlet, the haunted former Klansman who cannot disconnect from his past. And there’s Eddie, Clete’s old grade school buddy, who did “back-to-back nickles” in Angola to cover for his brother Andy, a strange case who may have some mental deficits or may simply be functioning on a different level entirely. Along the way, Joan of Arc makes an appearance as well, cheering on our underdog hero in her original form as a medieval peasant teen and not the triumphant armor-clad “Joanie on a Pony” whose golden statue holds pride of place on the Crescent City’s Decatur Street.

Because, yes, between Clete’s drinking and (unwilling) drugging, his head injuries and his own frequent flashbacks to his wartime experience in “the Crotch,” our protagonist frequently finds the line between reality and what’s, well, not, blurred. Wandering around in his robe and rabbit-eared slippers, he — like Robicheaux — inhabits a liminal world whose timeframe is fluid, where moral certainty trumps legality and sometimes even physical reality.

Fans of the previous Robicheaux books will not be surprised by this mingling of the metaphysical and mundane in what is essentially a fast-paced action-oriented thriller. Burke’s writing has long redefined Southern Gothic, forging a sui generis style that mixes woo-woo paranormal with lush and loving descriptions of the vanishing Louisiana wilderness, which stands as a contrast to human depravity.

This can be trying. For all the beauty of his ornate descriptions of Robicheaux’s ancestral Cajun country – “an antediluvian place” of “feral and threatening beauty,” where “[t]the sun does not go down; it dies, and its fire takes its red smoke with it” – Burke’s tropes threaten to devolve into ticks at times. How often, and in how many books, do we need to hear that “Dave saw Confederate soldiers in the mists” or about a bayou “its surface chained with rain”? And yet lines like “[t]he Teche seemed to turn to pewter, some of it tarnished, some as bright as moonlight” still evoke the light and humidity of an atmosphere found nowhere else in the continental United States, adding a melancholy beauty to the mystery, as if to mimic the very flawed hero at its core. And when, toward the end of Clete’s adventure, Burke pares down the prose, we get a simple statement:

“Sometimes when I’m fishing way down on the Gulf at sunset, I’ll see an old storage tank rusting in the water, or bamboo flooded with an iridescent reflection that shouldn’t be there, or a manmade canal streaming saline into a freshwater forest of gumtrees and cypress and tupelos. It makes me sad. It makes me feel that I am watching the end of something, maybe even time itself.” And you realize that Burke’s repetitions are elegies.

Clete may be masquerading as a whodunit, an action thriller that pits flawed good against implacable evil for a soul-satisfying wallop. But it’s more than that: It’s Beat poetry, suffused with sadness and longing for all those sunsets now gone.


Clea Simon is the Somerville-based author most recently of Bad Boy Beat.

2 Comments

  1. Ian Borthwick on June 10, 2024 at 3:29 pm

    Outstanding review, showing a deep knowledge and appreciation of Burke’s craft and the inimitable style with which he infuses each of his masterpieces. At last a literary critic whose own writing is (almost) on the same level as the master. Thank you!

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