Vick Mickunas: Although they don’t live happily ever after, at least the good guys usually win

The novelist James Lee Burke is in his 80s and continues to publish extraordinary fiction. Burke is determined and thoroughly devoted to his craft. There was a time early in his career when he could not get a novel published. The rejection slips were piling up.

It lasted for years. But he never gave up.

He just published his latest Dave Robicheaux novel, “A Private Cathedral.” It is his 40th book. Originally scheduled for release in May, the publication date was delayed on account of the pandemic.

In this one, Dave Robicheaux has gotten himself entangled in the tumultuous affairs of two rival crime families, the Shondells, and the Balangies, in New Iberia, Louisiana.

Two young lovers, a Shondell and a Balangie, are churning up turmoil within their respective families as they pursue a forbidden love affair along with their blossoming musical collaboration. In the more recent books, Dave and his trusty sidekick, Clete Purcel, are constantly getting wound up. Mayhem often ensues.

Fans of this series know that Dave is a troubled law enforcement officer while Clete is his devoted defender and a fellow who cannot seem to keep himself out of violent confrontations. Clete gets into mischief early and often and the two pals spend much of their time extricating one another from threatening situations.

Clete is self-destructive, he drinks a lot. Dave is a reformed drinker who is constantly battling his own demons and the urge to abandon his hard-won sobriety. Dave is also haunted by ghosts; there are the women he used to know, and now and then the spirits of Civil War soldiers seem to come marching out of the bayou.

James Lee Burke conjures up some insidious villains and while the Robicheaux books are crime novels, in “A Private Cathedral” Burke has imagined a bad guy who has emerged from worlds of dark fantasy and horror. They call him Gideon and his flesh is green. This terrifying specter has apparently erupted from some other century.

This reviewer is uncertain how old Dave Robicheaux is in this current book — he has to be in his 60s, at least. His amorous adventures with different women in this story do not provide us with accurate hints of the chronological reality as he still apparently possesses the libido of a much younger man.

The books in this series usually close as Dave and Clete are battling the forces of evil and have gotten themselves into danger that is so intense we as readers will often wonder how they can ever escape alive. So far they have always managed to make it through, although in recent books I have suspected Burke was on the verge of killing one or both of them off.

Dave and Clete have moral compasses. They do bad things but those deeds are often committed in the pursuit of some greater good. As they do terrible things to nasty people, there’s something almost liberating and redemptive for readers. We have plenty of villains about. Thank heaven for Dave and Clete.


“A Private Cathedral” by James Lee Burke (Simon and Schuster, 416 pages, $28)

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit Contact him at

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