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A Private Cathedral: A Dave Robicheaux Novel

Review

A Private Cathedral: A Dave Robicheaux Novel

James Lee Burke has gradually aged Dave Robicheaux and his best friend, Clete Purcel, to the point where both men are much closer to their sunset than their sunrise, possessed of the somewhat diminished physical abilities that age brings to all of us. However, Burke still has some stories to tell; to that end, he sets A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL, the 23rd installment in the series (and his 40th book overall), in the past. He uses the voice of Robicheaux to tell a haunting, disturbing and mesmerizing tale set just after the turn of this century that ripples even further back in time.

During the course of the book, Robicheaux is dealing with his status as a two-time widower, as well as his constant struggle against the inner demons that threaten his hard-won sobriety. It is this turmoil that has led to his status in limbo --- eventually resolved --- at the beginning of A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL with respect to his law enforcement officer. Still, this does not prevent Robicheaux from getting in the middle of a feud, which has lasted for hundreds of years, between the Shondells and the Balangies, two south Louisiana crime families.

"[A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL] contains some of Burke’s best writing to date, with strong characterization, memorable dialogue and his always magnificent descriptive prose."

The Shondells are based out of Robicheaux’s hometown of New Iberia, and as the story opens, they are involved in the entertainment industry. The Balangies are well-known mobsters from several generations ago who hold forth from their family mansion on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. A Romeo and Juliet moment is occurring between Johnny Shondell and Isolde Balangie, the youngest heirs of both families, whose romantic attraction shines through in their musical collaborations, which hark back to the days of the mid-20th century. Isolde, though, is an unwitting pawn in what is apparently an unspeakable brokered peace deal between the patriarchs of the two clans.

Robicheaux interjects himself into the situation, but his emotional weaknesses cause him to be buffeted carnally between Isolde’s mother and her stepfather’s mistress, a dangerous place to be under any circumstance and certainly when it is an organized crime figure who is being cuckolded. The mysterious assassin sent after Robicheaux is Gideon Richetti, an individual with a bizarre appearance whose thirst for violence and death is augmented by his ability to induce nightmarish hallucinations and to travel between place and time unimpeded.

Purcel is there to help but is soon dramatically caught in the crossfire as matters play out across south Louisiana, from the streets of New Orleans to the fishing camps and stilt houses on the Gulf of Mexico. Shifting alliances and attempts at redemption make Robicheaux’s efforts to save an innocent --- and his own self-worth --- all but futile.

Longtime readers are aware that the Robicheaux novels have intermittently explored the fragile divide between the living and the dead to great effect. Some of the images, particularly those encountered within IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD or the recurring visions that Robicheaux experiences of ghost steamboats traversing the Bayou Teche near his home in New Iberia, are impossible to forget.

In A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL, Burke takes things a step or two further, exploring the concept of time from a metaphysical standpoint but within the framework of a thriller firmly grounded in this world and mercifully short on explanations above Robicheaux’s pay grade. The result is a very literary one that contains some of Burke’s best writing to date, with strong characterization, memorable dialogue and his always magnificent descriptive prose.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 14, 2020

A Private Cathedral: A Dave Robicheaux Novel
by James Lee Burke

  • Publication Date: August 11, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982151684
  • ISBN-13: 9781982151683