Dave Robicheaux has turned in his badge and gun, retired from the New Iberia, Louisiana sheriff's department, and is contentedly drawing social security and a pension. He bends the occasional fishing rod in the Bayou Tesche with his fishing buddies, tends to his cat and Tripod, his three-legged raccoon, visits his late wife Bootsie's grave, and attends his AA meetings. The leisure life agrees with him.
A call from the wife of a college classmate rouses him from his early summer reverie. Her husband is dying and he desperately asks to speak with Dave. The dying man recalls an incident surrounding the disappearance of a girl by the name of Ida Durbin. The girl had meant little to Dave, but his half-brother, Jimmie Robicheaux, had fallen in love with her after she saved Dave and Jimmie from a shark attack off of Galveston Island in the late 1950s. Ida was a small-time prostitute, but Jimmie didn't care and wanted to get her out of the life. She vanished the day of their planned elopement over 45 years ago, and Jimmie had never forgotten her.
Dave half-heartedly promises the dying man that he'll look into some new evidence on her disappearance, but he doesn't really think it will go anywhere until he asks a couple of questions of two veteran New Orleans cops. Their reaction is so unexpected and violent that his curiosity is piqued. Dave, as readers know, never met an underdog he didn't want to defend --- especially if the abuse was coming from the rich, powerful or corrupt political families of Louisiana --- so he decides to look further into the disappearance and possible murder of Ida Durbin. The trail of Ida Durbin leads to the prominent Chalon family whose members are deeply involved with drug running, prostitution and, not surprisingly, politics.
The rest is pure James Lee Burke. We're offered the deeply evocative bayou scenes and the complex relationships between unlikely characters, such as Molly Boyle, a Catholic nun with whom Dave falls in love. He teams up with Clete Purcell, his best friend and former partner in the New Orleans police department whose own rap sheet is longer than most of the perps he apprehended, and Helen Soileau, sheriff of New Iberia County who reluctantly puts Dave back on the payroll to lighten the load when the murders start to mount up.
In this 14th Robicheaux novel, old Dave may be a bit long in the tooth, but he can still fight the righteous fight. He doesn't just join the crusade --- he digs the hole, erects the cross, then climbs up on it and nails himself down. Even Sheriff Soileau thinks he's finally stepped over the line, and Dave is not entirely certain that he's innocent of the murder of a Chalon family member.
In one of the richest plots ever, CRUSADER'S CROSS is a welcome return of one of mystery fiction's most indelible characters.
A Review by Joe Hartlaub:
There are few finer gifts that a year can bring than a James Lee Burke novel featuring Dave Robicheaux. Robicheaux is a deeply flawed man, trying to do right in a world where such a course goes against the current. This is especially true in CRUSADER'S CROSS, Burke's latest novel.
CRUSADER'S CROSS heralds the welcome return of Dave's half-brother, Jimmie. Decades previously, when Dave and Jimmie were college students, they spent their summers working on oil derricks in the Texas Gulf Coast. At the time, Jimmie became smitten with a woman who he knew as Ida Durbin. Durbin was a prostitute, working a house in Galveston, Texas. Jimmie attempted to get her out of that life and take her to Mexico; Durbin, however, disappeared on the eve of their planned departure. The episode faded from the memories of the brothers, but a deathbed confession from one of Dave's acquaintances brings it to the forefront. Apparently Durbin was murdered, and her death seems to be tied to the Chalons, a wealthy family in the area whose power and influence go back generations.
Valentine Chalon, a local media magnate and heir apparent to the family fortune, is determined to derail Dave's investigation. Meanwhile, his sister Honoria seems determined to seduce Dave, which appears to have its origin not so much from passion as from a deep-seated emotional disturbance. When Dave continues his pursuit of the truth, and Jimmie becomes involved in his own way, Dave quickly finds himself in trouble. Clete Purcel, Dave's former New Orleans Police Department homicide partner, also jumps into the fray, helping and harming in equal measure.
Compounding matters is that a serial killer who has been murdering women in Baton Rouge appears to have a link to the community, and may also be connected to Dave's personal investigation. Dave finds himself emotionally drawn into the orbit of a local nun, and the attendant scandal of their growing mutual attraction provides additional ammunition for Valentine Chalon, as well as making them a target for another sinister personality who strikes all too unexpectedly.
Burke, into his third decade of a brilliant career, shows no signs of slowing down. However, CRUSADER'S CROSS seems to be cobbled together at times, as if Burke had a number of disparate plot ideas that he decided to incorporate into one book. As with almost all of Burke's novels, it incorporates a real world event. In this case, the Baton Rouge murders were a frightening fact of life --- indeed, as described in the novel, the Baton Rouge ladies who lunch were lined up for target practice and shooting lessons --- and Burke's on-target description of the investigation gives his narrative a real world immediacy. But the pacing of CRUSADER'S CROSS is uneven. At times Burke seems given over to almost pointless meandering through the past --- though he does so with great eloquence --- while the conclusion comes roaring up quite abruptly, with several resolutions taking place within the last page or two.
Although CRUSADER'S CROSS is far from Burke's best novel, it contains, as is often the case with each of his works, some of his finest writing. His descriptive talents have continued to sharpen over time; he is perhaps, with Cormac McCarthy, our finest prose craftsman, one who can paint word pictures of such beauty and terror --- at times contemporaneously --- that the reader is often torn between rereading each passage and continuing onward through the riveting, if occasionally disjointed, story. If CRUSADER'S CROSS is not a perfect model for storytelling, it remains a stunning example of the power of descriptive language.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on December 28, 2010