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Clete by James Lee Burke - Review

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James Lee Burke

Atlantic Monthly Press

312 Pages (E-book) (Hardcover)


Clete Cover

You can write anything you want when you’re an 87-year-old acclaimed writer who’s won almost every award imaginable for mystery authors. And that’s what James Lee Burke seems to have done. Through 23 novels, Clete Purcel has served as the dedicated sidekick to Burke’s series hero, Dave Robicheaux. Burke has finally gotten around to telling a story from Purcel’s point of view. The resulting novel, Clete, still features Burke’s marvelous descriptive language and colorful characters, and Robicheaux is on hand as Clete’s wingman. But this story gives readers a hitherto unknown insight into Clete’s often troubled mind. The result is a plot that’s sometimes confusing (or confused in Clete’s narrative mind) and a bit hard to follow. However, the book will be a welcome addition to Burke’s fans’ libraries.

Clete is set in the late 1990s, when Purcel is a New Orleans private investigator, and Robicheaux is a detective in Iberia Parish. Clete had just taken his prized Cadillac El   

Dorado to an ex-con's car wash as a favor. The next day he discovers three goons stripping the car, looking for something. The thugs get away, but Clete suspects the car wash owner had stashed some drugs in Clete’s car. Clete hates fentanyl because his grandniece OD’d and died. He also hates anti-Semites, and one thug had an offensive anti-Semitic slur on his T-shirt. So, he goes looking for the drugs that weren’t in his car and the thugs who were.

The case and the book’s plot get much more complicated rather quickly. Several characters are murdered in gruesome fashions. Clete befriends a bail-jumping stripper who assaulted her sleazeball bail bondsman. He also rescues a young Chinese woman who was being trafficked and hooked on heroin by that same bondsman. To round out the trio of new women in his life, Clete takes on a would-be actress named Clara Bow (seriously) as a client. She’s being abused by her soon-to-be ex-husband, an even sleazier billionaire whose fortune built on a Ponzi scheme is coming apart at the hands of the IRS.

Clete has one other new woman in his life, and she’s the strangest of them all. Throughout the book, Dave is visited by Joan of Arc several times. Yes, that Joan of Arc, who appears to converse in modern-day English. She even shows up during a dinner Clete is sharing with Dave Robicheaux. Dave isn’t surprised to learn Joan is at the table, even though he can’t see her. (He’s had his own experiences with spirits.) Joan also provides Clete with clues that help him solve the case.

James Lee Burke has inserted paranormal elements in his other novels. Here, however, the genius of his narrative is that readers are never sure whether Joan actually appears or is only a figment of Clete’s imagination. It’s understandable if Clete isn’t sure of himself at times. Besides his past traumas, some of which the author describes here, Clete suffers a lot of physical abuse in this story. He’s beaten up three times, tased twice, shot once, and given a ham sandwich laced with LSD.

By having Clete narrate his story, the author gives readers an insight into how he regards Dave and the differences between the two men. They came from similar backgrounds and started out similarly, but Clete’s values and actions were slightly darker than Dave’s. In the first 23 books of the series, readers have seen this dichotomy through Dave’s eyes. Now, it’s from Clete’s point of view, and the difference makes Clete an intriguing variation on the earlier books. It also might explain why the author chose to write this book at this time in his career. Clete gives readers a fuller understanding of Clete Purcel and Dave Robicheaux.

Any Robicheaux novel is full of wonderfully descriptive writing, and readers can open Clete to any page at random and get an enjoyable sentence or two. I could fill this review with examples, but I’ll settle for the author’s description of the French Quarter (in the ARC I reviewed): “The Quarter smells like medieval Europe probably did, always dank, and, except for high noon, it’s always in shadow. It smells like storm sewers and night damp and lichen on stone and kegs of wine stored in a cellar and smoked fish hanging in the open-air market.”

Clete does not have the strongest storyline of the Robicheaux novels. All the elements are there: Clete and Dave, mysterious women, crooked cops, and slimy bad guys. But by the end of the book, readers aren’t sure how all the characters are connected or even what the mysterious contents the villains hoped to find in Clete’s car are. The last encounter takes place in a suburban bowling alley and its environs on a stormy night, and the fate of several characters is unclear.

The novel’s loose plotting and possible anachronisms bothered me somewhat. (Both fentanyl and Ponzi schemes were around in 1999, obviously, but they wouldn’t have been as prevalent as the book implies.) Also, some characters’ actions seem to differ in various parts of the book to fit the storyline. But, overall, I enjoyed Clete as I’ve enjoyed James Lee Burke’s other work. Supposedly, the author already has three other books completed. I hope we’ll see more of Clete, Dave, and James Lee Burke’s other memorable characters deep in the Louisiana bayous.

NOTE: The publisher graciously provided me with a copy of this book through NetGalley. However, the decision to review the book and the contents of this review are entirely my own.

Author James Lee Burke discusses Clete with Patrick Millikin of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore:

James Lee Burke is a New York Times bestselling author, three-time winner of the Edgar Award as well as the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger and Gold Dagger and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in Fiction.

Buy Dave Robicheaux books on Amazon:

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The New Iberia Blues Cover

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