James Lee Burke is a master of the Southern novel, maybe the master of the modern Southern novel. I discovered him only a couple of years ago, just by walking through a store and coming across the alluringly titled Pegasus Descending. A name like that could cover a pretentious hipster epic, a cheesy political thriller, or as was this rare case, a brilliant drama.
I would have known how great Pegasus Descending would be if I had known basically anything about James Lee Burke. He has a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Edgar Awards, and a Grand Master Award by The Mystery Writers of America. The man writes detective mysteries that are critically received like Victor Hugo. Rightfully so.
Some series novels must be read in order of release to best follow the plot and character development. This is also frequently not the case though. Instead of the overly expository world-building of an introductory installment, sequels often present their settings, style, and characters more naturally and with an easier pace. This notably applies to The Burning Land (The Saxon Stories) by Bernard Cornwell, and certainly to Pegasus Descending, which I didn’t initially know is the 15th of so-far 22 Dave Robicheaux novels.
That’s not to say Pegasus Descending isn’t extremely descriptive. It is. While not hampering me down with too many details, Burke made characters and places as familiar as my own personal memories.
….he was a good kid, not a drunk, not mean-spirited or resentful yet about the addiction that had already cost him a fiancée and a two-bedroom stucco house on a canal in Fort Lauderdale. He grinned at his losses, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, as though a humorous acknowledgment of his problem made it less than it was."
Burke writes here from the perspective of Dave Robicheaux, an old Cajun Louisiana detective with a storied and tragic past. Part of that tragedy becomes integral to Pegasus Descending’s story when the daughter of a deceased friend comes to town and Robicheax starts connecting her appearance to the alleged suicide of a local girl.
In reality, Robicheaux’s musings might seem baroque for the average jaded old man. But he’s painted convincingly as a kind of warrior poet, who, from a long life of hard experiences, is just able to asses things with ornate accuracy.
“ No, we don’t got a problem,” the short man said, turning toward me, the sole of one shoe grinding on a piece of broken mortar…. His eyes contained a cool green fire whose source a cautious man doesn’t probe."
Then on a beautiful Friday night, with no catalyst at work, with a song in my heart, I put on a new sports jacket, my shined loafers, and a pair of pressed slacks, and joined the crew up in Opa-Locka and pretended once again I could drop lighted matches in a gas tank without consequence.”
Later, I would remember the pro forma beginnings of the investigation like the tremolo you might experience through the structure of an airplane just before oil from an engine streaks across your window.”
Two of the experiences which vividly color’s Robicheaux’s life are the murder of his first wife and death of his second wife. From the little we read about them we can tell that they obviously torture him. As painful as those old losses are, his third wife, Molly, brings him a great new peace. He describes her appreciatively, with prose that could break a single philanderer’s ways.
Our little spot on East Main is a fine place to live, and the woman I share it with is a person who lays no claim on courage or devotion or resilience but possesses all those virtues in exceptional fashion without ever being conscious of them.”
She used to be a catholic nun. She’ll rip your arms off and beat you to death with them."
In the quiet times, in the wee small hours when disjointed clues rattle in Robicheaux’s mind, it is Molly who appears to help him sort them out loud.
The official suicide ruling of a local good girl just doesn’t jive with Robicheaux’s keenness of human behavior. From his experience, the victim’s death and alleged life do not match.
Suicides fall into categories. Some victims probably manufacture an internal psychodrama as a way of asking for help, then drift too far across the line. The clinically depressed do it in closed garages or with pills and booze while they listen to Boléro or “Clair de lune.” Jumpers find audiences and sail out among the stars. Some fantasize a script in which they transcend their own deaths. In their imagination they watch from above while others find their bodies in horror and are trapped inside a legacy of guilt and grief for the rest of their lives.
Robicheaux calculates his case based on several other thought-provoking generalizations. Yes, they ignore exceptions and anomalies, but Robicheaux has a death to avenge, and to find the perpetrator he relies on his accumulated wisdom of how people, from their best to worst, commonly are.
But I knew that Raguza belonged to that group of human beings whose pathology is always predictable. By reason of either genetic defect, environmental conditioning, or a deliberate choice to join themselves at the hip with the forces of darkness, they incorporate into their lives a form of moral insanity that is neither curable nor subject to analysis. They enjoy inflicting pain, and view charity and forgiveness as signals of both weakness and opportunity. The only form of remediation they understand is force. The victim who believes otherwise condemns himself to the death of a thousand cuts
There may be room in government service for the altruist and the iconoclast, but I have yet to see one who was not treated as an oddity at best and at worst an object of suspicion and fear.”
But I believed that Whitey, like his mentors in Brooklyn and Miami, was driven by avarice, and like any man addicted to the love of money, his greatest and most abiding fear was not the loss of his life or even his soul.”
Robicheaux puts many characters in behavioral boxes, viewing them as people that reliably act one way and very likely can’t change except for the worse. An old cop speaking of people in general terms could perhaps cause a more sensitive reader to brace for racism. But Robicheaux is keenly aware of the horror of racial inequality, especially and specifically in his own home of the Cajun South.
New Iberia is not New Orleans and we do not share its violent history, one that in the past has included a homicide rate equaled only by that of Washington, D.C. Here, whites and people of color work and live side by side. But nonetheless a peculiar kind of racial ill ease still exists in our small city on the Bayou Teche. Maybe it’s indicative of the shadow that the pre-civil rights era still casts upon all the states of the old Confederacy. Perhaps we fear our own memories. I think as white people we know deep down inside ourselves the exact nature of the deeds we or our predecessors committed against people of color. I think we know that if our roles were reversed, if we had suffered the same degree of injury that was imposed upon the Negro race, we would not be particularly magnanimous when payback time rolled around. I think we know that in all probability we would cut the throats of the people who had made our lives miserable.
As we see in the excerpt above, he laments a violent dichotomy that The South has trouble shaking. He also notes subtler benefits that the well-off inherit.
I snipped the cuffs on each of his wrists and began walking him toward the backseat of my cruiser. Already his manner had changed and I realized he was exactly like all the middle-class kids we run for possession or DWI. Many of them are the children of physicians and attorneys and prominent businesspeople. When they deal with someone dressed in a suit, or in sports clothes, as I was, someone who represents a form of authority they associate with their parents, their vocabulary becomes sanitized and their manners miraculously reappear. In fact, their degree of humility and cooperation is so impressive, they usually skate on the charges or at worst receive probationary sentences.”
Along with, and sometimes integral to, the death and depression of Robicheaux’s environment are a few humorous passages.
Did you ever hear the story about Robert Mitchum getting out of Los Angeles City Prison?” I said.
Many of us have a friend who is always causing trouble, always needs help out of some jam, frustrates us, and occasionally makes us question how balanced our relationship is. There’s a lot of honor in the friendship just due to years, but maybe most importantly, the friend’s characteristics that frustrate us are the same ones that make us love the friend and provide near-death levels of laughter and camaraderie. If you’ve never known a person like that, you probably are such a person. Dave Robicheaux’s is Clete Purcel.
We’ve got a congressman here who was asked to describe Louisiana on CNN. He goes, ‘Half of it is underwater and half of it is under indictment.’”
She looks over my shoulder and sees the security guys coming for us. Then she looks all around for her friends, but she’d already lost them in the crowd. She goes, ‘I’m up Shit’s Creek, handsome. Can you get us out of here?’ My big-boy started flipping around in my slacks, like it had gone on autopilot and was trying to break out of jail.”
Robicheaux has his own issues with a few different women. His carnal interests don’t get the better of him here though. He’s too consumed with the case, too grounded by his wife, and maybe too caught up with flowery analyses & descriptions? I’m not complaining.
She put a bright piece of red candy in her mouth and sucked on it. I looked her evenly in the eyes but did not answer her question, a bubble of anger rising in my chest like an old friend.”
The guard was a stout, joyless woman who had once been taken hostage at a men’s prison and held for three days during an attempted jailbreak. I used to see her at Red’s Gym, pumping iron in a roomful of men who radiated testosterone – dour, painted with stink, possessed of memories she didn’t share. She unhooked Trish at the door. I rose when Trish entered the room and offered her a chair. The guard gave me a look that was both hostile and suspicious and locked the door behind her.”
“I was drunk for many years, Mrs. Lujan. But I finally learned everybody has to pay his tab.”
Robicheaux’s old vice turns into valuable experience for the Pegasus Descending case. It helps him better assess everyone and everything.
He took a huge drag off his cigarette, his brow furrowing as though his inhalation of cancer-causing chemicals were a moment of metaphysical importance.”
If you ever become a low-bottom boozer, you will learn that the safest places to drink, provided you know the rules, are blue-collar saloons, pool halls, hillbilly juke joints, and blind pigs where two thirds of the clientele have rap sheets.”
The mist outside had become as thick and gray in the trees as fog, and I couldn’t see the green of the park on the far side of the bayou.
“What was it that bothered me so much? Loss of my youth? Fear of mortality? The systemic destruction of the Cajun world in which I had grown up?”
Robicheaux further reflects on these things quite a bit. His telling of the lost past and its destruction brings up a longing nostalgia in me for a place I’ve never been. Burke has composed a character that in one or many ways will reflect most readers' distinct emotions of unchangeable and irretrievable upbringings. It's sometimes verbose, always very good, writing.
Traditional New Orleans was like a piece of South America that had been sawed loose from its moorings and blown by trade winds across the Caribbean, until it affixed itself to the southern rim of the United States. The streetcars, the palms along the neutral grounds, the shotgun cottages with ventilated shutters, the Katz and Betz drugstores whose neon lighting looked like purple and green smoke in the mist, the Irish and Italian dialectical influences that produced an accent mistaken for Brooklyn or the Bronx, the collective eccentricity that drew Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner and William Burroughs to its breast, all these things in one way or another were impaired or changed forever by the arrival of crack cocaine.”
Its influence is systemic and I doubt if there is one kid in our parish who doesn’t know where he can buy it if he wants it….
At one time we literally set our watches by the Sunset Limited. It ran every day, from Los Angeles to Miami and back again, and somehow assured us that we were part of something much larger than ourselves–a country of southwestern vistas and cities glimmering at sunset on the edges of vast oceans, where the waves broke against the skin like a secular baptism. It was the stuff of mythos, but it was real because we believed it was real.”
I have never given much credence to the notion that the dead are held captive by the weight of tombstones placed on their chests. I believe they slip loose from their fastenings of rotted satin and mold board and tree roots and the clay itself and visit us in nocturnal moments that we are allowed to dismiss as dreams. They’re in our midst, still hanging on for reasons of their own. Sometimes I think their visitation has less to do with their own motives than ours. I think sometimes it is we who need the dead rather than the other way around.”
As a homicide detective and widower and a generally nostalgic person, Robicheaux dwells at length on the dead. He ruminates pretty intently on everyone really (if you haven’t picked that up by now,) from well-intentioned people to evil ones, from the rich to the poor, young and old.
He was terrified of the prospect of hell and the consequences of his own libidinous nature, and believed it was the devil’s hand that constantly subverted his attempts to achieve social respectability, which in Bellerophon’s mind was the same as morality. For Bello, God was an abstraction, but the devil was real and reminded Bello of his presence each morning when Bello awoke throbbing and hard, chained to unrequited dreams that followed him into the day.”
The Giacanos were stone cold killers and corrupt to the core, but they were pragmatists as well as family men and they realized no society remains functional if it doesn’t maintain the appearances of morality.”
He wondered if the role of public fool came in incremental fashion with age, or if you simply crossed a line one day and found yourself in a room full of echoes that sounded almost like laughter.”
Robicheaux struggles against entering that room full of echoes as he ages:
Most cops and newspeople, usually at midpoint in their careers, come to a terrible realization about themselves, namely, that they are in danger of becoming like the jaundiced and embittered individuals they had always pitied as aberrations or anachronisms in their profession. But when people lie to you on a daily basis, when you watch zoning boards sell out whole neighborhoods to porn vendors and massage parlor owners, when you see the most expensive attorneys in the country labor on behalf of murderers and drug lords, when you investigate instances of child abuse so grievous your entire belief system is called into question, you have to reexamine your own life and perspective in ways we normally reserve for saints.
“You often rediscover your faith by taking up the cause of one individual….” For Dave Robicheaux, this one individual is Yvonne Darbonne. Drowning in a world and system and personal past that he can’t fix, he seeks solace in solving this one case, in bringing Yvonne’s killer to justice.
Get a great murder mystery and evocative Southern drama at the same time by reading Pegasus Descending.
When people seek vengeance, they dig up every biblical platitude imaginable to rationalize their behavior, but their motivations are invariably selfish.”