James Lee Burke
Full disclosure: This book was recommended to me by Alafair Burke when I asked which of her father’s books I should read. I’m sure it has nothing to do with protagonist Dave Robicheaux’s teenage daughter Alafair. (Just kidding, Alafair!)
Actually, it was a really good pick. It begins with Robicheaux, a deputy in a bayou parish in Louisiana, delicately letting actor Elrod Sykes off of a drunk driving charge. Robicheaux knows a few things about drunks, having been one in the old days. Something’s spooked Sykes. He claims to have found a body in the bayou while working on a movie. Robicheaux realizes it’s the victim of a murder he witnessed as a young man of 19. He takes up the case which puts him in the crosshairs of local mafioso Julie Balboni, who fancies himself a movie producer. The problem is that he also needs to investigate the brutal murder of a young woman that looks like a serial killer. So much so that the FBI sends Rosie Gomez to work the case.
Both murders pose a problem for Balboni, whose ego is more dangerous than any of his thugs. He proceeds to gaslight Robicheaux, even spiking his drink with LSD to convince others that he’s gone back to drinking. It doesn’t help that sobriety never really curtailed his temper where brutal criminals are concerned. Even Robicheaux begins questioning his sanity when he’s given advice by the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood.
Burke’s bayou is a different world. It’s not New Orleans or Texas or any of a dozen other Southern locales that show up in crime novels. The Old South is very much alive here and at odds with the modern South. But it’s Balboni’s arrogance that drives this story. He has a history with Robicheaux going back to high school. Robicheaux himself is arrogant, slashing Balboni’s tires and having the car towed at one point before nearly putting one of the gangster’s entourage in the hospital. But the difference is Balboni is all about Balboni. Robicheaux is about other’s. He wants justice for the black man he saw murdered and for the girl found carved up near the movie set. He also takes an interest in getting Elrod Sykes clean and sober, sometimes against his wife’s advice.