A Private Cathedral

Written by James Lee Burke

Review written by Michael Carlson

A Private Cathedral
RRP: £20.00
Released: August 17, 2020

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels have always been meditations on the nature of evil, or perhaps more accurately, on human nature itself, because central to those meditations is Dave’s grappling with the darker side of his own nature. In that sense, A Private Cathedralis apex of that meditation, a dreamy shadowy narrative that finds Dave with different personifications of evil, which emphasize an eternal battle.

At the story’s core is a multi-generational pact between the Balangie and Shondell families, who control crime in the area of New Iberia, a city of almost 30,000 people. Their feud goes back some 400 years, when a Shondell burnt a Balangie at the stake. Now, in some sort of accommodation between the families, the lovely Isolde Balangie is due to be delivered to Mark Shondell, head of the family, by his nephew Johnny, a budding rock star, shades of Tommy James and the Shondells. Johnny and Isobel, however, have fallen for each other. Johnny is not quite Tristan, but with Mark and Isolde you should recognise the reference. Dave takes on the task of finding out whether or not she has been kidnapped into some sort of white slavery. It’s a strange sort of mission, particularly as he and Clete are repeatedly dismissed by both families. At one point, deep into the search, still searching for Isolde, they are thrown out of the Belangie house. The next night they head to a club where Johnny and Isolde are performing. Where the crowd so young it makes Dave feel out of place, features a former governor of Louisiana. But the point is, if they knew Isolde would be there, why were they searching?

Meanwhile, Dave’s best friend Cletus Purcell has already been kidnapped and tortured by a man who looks more like a lizard, and who appears to be hundreds of years old, and Mark Shondell is said to have a face that lights up with internal flame. This is evil of a different sort than what Dave has encountered before. But as he investigates, he is reinstated into the New Iberia PD and despite being warned to toe the ethical line manages to sleep with both the wife and mistress of Adonis Belangie, head of their family. This creates an interesting dynamic in which villains come for Clete, villains come for the troubled priest Father Hebert, but the villains sort of leave Dave alone, despite the personal affronts he levels at Mark Shondell and even more so to Adonis.

Dave is in another sense alone. He has lost two wives, one to evil criminals, one to disease. His adopted daughter Alafair is away at Reed College (in Portland, Oregon as Dave reminds us frequently) or in Paris (France, not Texas or Georgia, as Dave doesn’t remind us) and his encounters with the women in the envelop Dave in a sort of distorting, dislocating haze, as if he is trying to find through them a path out of this darkness, as if he is not fully himself while he is engaged. Clete understands that Dave sees Penelope, who is introduced clutching a rosary, as “a woman with a rainbow around her”, understands that Dave is her Odysseus.

As Dave moves between the Belangies and Shondells, between New Iberia and New Orleans, he contemplates the evil that lies close to the surface in Louisiana, a legacy of slavery, racism and corruption which has haunted his books. He contemplates the evils of the war in Vietnam, where he and Clete both served, and where they did things that haunt them still, in the name of some sort of American ideal. This is important, because there is a strong over-hanging presence of the current political scene, in which a candidate for president who’s in hock to gangsters and the forces of evil seems about to be elected. And as he contemplates this evil, and his duty to fight crime, he also is careful to ensure no one uses profanity in his presence. In fact, there is a telling moment late in the story when Dave, overcome with the repellent tragedies which seem to mount, Dave curses at Mark Shondell, “fuck your collection” (the collection is one of instruments of torture). Shondell, who may or may not be in league with the devil (the question, sadly, is never really resolved) replies “You’re an educated man. Profanity is the tool early man used to ward off situations he couldn’t change—in other words a confession of inadequacy. Does it bother you that you’re such a predictable fellow?” Shondell doesn’t know about Dave’s crusade against profanity, but he has explained it: Dave cannot consider the evil situations he faces unchangeable. It would defeat the purpose of who he is. Thus he recoils, usually, from profanity.

Dave contemplates because his stories are, as I said, contemplations on evil. And it seems everyone in the Delta is a philosopher, or at least a psychoanalyst. Dave and Clete meet some neo-Nazis in a bar; one named Klute looks at them and says “You did something in ‘Nam you can’t forgive yourself for, so you go around playing the good guy and suck up to any titty-baby bunch of knee-jerk liberals that’ll let you clean their toilets.” In a moment, Clete is smashing the guy’s face into the bar.

Purcell is Dave’s id, if anything more sensitive and tormented than Dave, but unable to go on the wagon and unable to avoid his rage boiling over into violence. Yet Clete too is a philosopher, and he understands Dave’s core. Not long after smashing up the neo-Nazis, he tells Dave “do you know why we drink? So we can do the things our conscience won’t let us do when we’re sober”. Even Penelope gets into the act. When Marcel LaForchette, the ex-con with turquoise eyes who claims to be Dave’s half-brother, and who has set him on the twisty path of this story, kills himself, Penelope explains to Dave what he’s feeling. “People who commit suicide in dramatic fashion often have an agenda and are involved in a fantasy that leads to their death. They’re filled with rage and seek revenge against those who have hurt them...In their fantasy, they witness the discovery of their body by people they hate. In that way, they leave behind a legacy of guilt and sorrow.” Did I mention she’s beautiful?

At times the whole tale seems like a fantasy, and it is the presence of the snake-like Gideon that makes it a moral fairy-tale, as he has a legacy of his own, a fate which he is striving to undo. Gideon, and the element of the supernatural, reminded me of John Connelly’s Charlie Parker novels, with a touch of William Hjortsberg’s Angel Heart. It’s complex, and like a dark jewel, has many facets through which little light passes. There are villains on many sides, some whose motives are literally incomprehensible, and as they gather Burke does ratchet the suspense into an action-filled finale for which you almost need a scorecard. Even the lesser characters are drawn deeply, and, as I mentioned, deeply philosophical in their self-understanding or, indeed, self-deception. There are gothic elements, particularly the relations between the two crime families, and indeed the true catalogue of Mark Shondell’s darker side, which would have deserved greater exposition, but how much more can one township in Louisiana take? Or one detective?

This novel is indeed a private cathedral, a place where Dave Robicheaux’s faith is tested, and where he can take solace in his and Clete’s ability to ward off, if not totally defeat evil. It’s an hallucinatory tale, which might be dismissed as being a fever-dream, yet which delineates powerfully the reality of Dave Robicheaux, and makes clear what drives him, and what haunts him. They are, for the most part, the same things.

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