“Clete” by James Lee Burke

As the legions of fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series will no doubt readily attest, JLB knows how to write a good story. In that regard, Clete (Atlantic Monthly Press 2024) is no different as it’s a darn fine tale of friendship, danger, and despair. It has flashes of noir thriller and exposes the gritty, violent sides of New Orleans, complete with a diverse cast of characters which will keep readers guessing. In that sense, Clete is a classic JLB novel. Yet this time, something is different. Instead of being Robicheaux’s faithful sidekick, partner, and companion in adventure while Dave tells the story, this time Clete Purcel is the star, and he tells the story in his distinctive voice. Thus, in this twenty-fourth book in the Robicheaux series, readers get to dive into Clete’s deep and troubling thoughts in a way that is different and welcomed in the series.

Clete Purcel, like Dave Robicheaux, is world-weary, a Vietnam war veteran with a dark view of life, who burned too many bridges with the New Orleans police department where he once worked. He now makes a living as a private detective. It’s a job he seems to detest and certainly has a low opinion about. In contrast, Dave, despite his many trials and conflicts, is still in law enforcement, working with a Louisiana sheriff’s department. The two men, as repeatedly testified to by Clete in the novel, are close friends. They have a long history of saving each other. In the lingo of their creed, they have each other’s backs. Yet, Clete, and to a lesser degree Dave, appears to function one minute away from a total melt-down.  As Clete tells Dave, “I’m losing my mind, and the whole fxxking room is about to slide into the Gulf. I think maybe I am dead.”

Burnt-out, world-weary cops, especially hard-drinkers who are war veterans, might be a well-worn trope. While nobody can claim JLB created this stereotype, still in Clete and Dave, JLB has come close to perfecting the trope, and wrangling from it a sense of uniqueness. Part of what gives the trope its freshness in the Robicheaux novels and in Clete is the power, layers, and depth of their friendship.

Thus, fundamentally, Clete is a story about friendship. As such, this one is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Which is not to say that JLB hasn’t excelled at characters in prior books—he has. Nor is it to say the plot is not there in Clete, but this go round, the plot is just not the tightly woven, finessed, fast paced one usually gets from JLB. Rather, while the action is there, it lurks between Clete’s many long meanderings and thoughts of doom, which however revealing of his personality, nonetheless slow the pace.

Some of what happens in the story line seems disconnected and illogical. But then after all, the man narrating the story—Clete Purcel—sees Joan of Arc on a regular basis and counts her as having saved his life. He and Joan converse. She warns him. She cares for him. Dave, try though he might, does not see Joan—though he recognizes that Clete sees her. As faithful fans will well remember, Dave too has a fluctuating sense of reality and interacted with CSA General John Bell Hood and an army of long dead Confederate soldiers in In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (Dave Robicheaux Book 6).

The book opens with Clete informing readers that “This story about Louisianna happened in the late nineties, before Katrina and before the Towers.” Though clearly Clete and Dave are well rooted in Louisiana, their descriptions of the state would not warm the hearts of the state’s Chamber of Commerce. As Clete quips, “Dave Robicheaux said a love affair with Louisiana is like falling in love with the Great Whore of Babylon.”

Clete views himself as dimly he does Louisiana. He says, “I live with a slapjack, a .38 Special snub, and a badge holder on my kitchen counter. What that signifies is I blew my career as a real cop and became a lush…” He readily concedes he drinks far too much.

As if talking with ghosts and imbibing far too much isn’t enough, Clete admits to being deeply depressed and he is also suffering from psychoneurotic anxiety. Certainly, he perfects being cynical. But he is not entirely wrong when he tells Joan of Arc that “I feel like somebody has got a gun aimed at me all day, and I have no idea where my enemies are or who’s leading them.”

In terms of the plot, Clete leaves his Cadillac Eldorado at a car wash longer than he should have. Someone apparently hides something illegal in his car as a mistake. Or as the car wash owner later explains, “Another Eldorado was holding some stuff a guy was supposed to pick up. There was some confusion.” Now the villains want their “stuff” back. Three men track Clete’s car to his house. After tearing up his car, they can’t find the “stuff.” Neither Clete nor Dave knows exactly what was hidden in his car. Clete comes to believe the mysterious thing is black market fentanyl. Yet later, an earnest FBI agent alludes to Clete and Dave that the substance is far more dangerous.

A collection of people who may or may not be involved with the “stuff” confront and confound Clete and Dave. Some of these characters may or may not be evil, and they may or may not have Clete and Dave in their sights, but the man with the anti-Semitic T-shirt is purely and clearly evil, as is the tattooed man whose viciousness is utterly chilling. But are either of these two the ringleader? Or are they just hired help? The abused wife with the beautiful movie-star face might or might not be evil, though her husband certainly is. And pay careful attention to the alluring strip-club dancer who is an ace shot.

Along the road toward the book’s strange climax, plenty of people will get hurt and killed. If you prefer the light touch and soft-focus on violence found in most cozy mysteries, be forewarned: this is not your book. As with your typical JLB novel, this one is rife with violence, disturbing, graphic, and sometimes senseless. It’s never completely clear why some of these folks are hurt, and hurt so viciously, just like it’s never completely clear exactly what happens in the end. Because Clete is telling the story, and he is an unreliable narrator, readers might be confused. (This reviewer was). But that’s the price for having an alcoholic, mentally unstable character as the narrator.

If one has somehow missed already being a JLB fan, Clete is probably not the best book to start with. Rather, please go back to the beginning—The Neon Rain and Heaven’s Prisoners and indulge yourself in the whole, plentiful series, reading up to Clete.

James Lee Burke

Burke was born in Texas and spent most of his childhood on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. He now lives in Montana. He is a New York Times bestselling author, two-time winner of the Edgar Award, winner of the CWA Gold Dagger and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in Fiction. He has authored forty novels and two short story collections.

(All quotes are taken from an Advanced Readers Copy and might have been edited in the final release.)


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