Once, during my second year as an MFA graduate student at the University of Montana, a prominent local writer and professor informed our entire workshop, strictly for education’s sake, that crime fiction novelist and local favorite James Lee Burke would make more money, publish more books, and fill up readings faster than all of us combined. It was clear from his tone that this fact did not fit his idea of literary justice.
Burke, meanwhile, has published 24 novels. His list of best sellers runs longer than my run-on sentences. His latest, despite its flaws, and they are many, is sure to echo previous successes. And so, with no small amount of reluctance, I concede to my old professor who was, apparently, just teaching us the facts of literary life.
The problem with Crusader’s Cross isn’t its beginning. In fact the novel’s opening is luxurious in its indulgence of detail, allowing the reader to linger on Texas’ Galveston Island, circa 1958, where Burke’s ever-popular hero Dave Robicheaux and his half-brother Jimmie meet Ida Durbin, a pretty redhead who sings sweetly and plays a mandolin held hostage in a pawn shop. Later they find out she’s a down-on-her-luck prostitute trying to pay back a hefty debt. Jimmie and Ida fall in love, he buys back her mandolin, but before he can sweep her away, she disappears.
Shoot forward to the present day where Dave, a broken-down investigator on the wagon, hears a death-bed confession from a man claiming to have been in a room years ago with several other men, a smashed up mandolin, and a bloody, defenseless Ida Durbin. Did the men murder her? The dying man doesn’t know. He’d been a child at the time, but it’s possible. Thus is the case of what exactly happened to Ida Durbin reopened, almost 50 years after her disappearance.
Had Burke allowed this mystery to blossom, we might have had an alluring novel on our hands. Instead he piles subplot on top of subplot to such an extent that by the middle of the novel we no longer care what happened to dear old Ida Durbin and her mandolin.
Crime novels that try to do too much resemble summertime fruit gone overly ripe. Crusader’s Cross, which begins with a juicy I’m-going-to-settle-into-this kind of feel, spoils its own story by overwhelming the reader with too many plot twists that Burke hopes to stitch neatly together into a single coherent narrative. For example, while asking questions about the long-ago disappearance of a teenage prostitute, Dave also tries desperately to break the powerful Chalons family and the New Orleans mob; to solve a series of terrifying local murders; to learn the secrets of Honoria Chalons, the strange woman who continually alludes to the Chalons’ family secrets; to figure out his insatiable sexual attraction to a local nun; to avoid a pair of redneck sheriffs out to get him; to stay on the wagon; to evade child molestation charges; and not to completely lose the trust of New Iberia’s lesbian parish sheriff, whose only conceivable role in the novel is to act like Robicheaux’s high school principal, smiling and shaking her head at the wayward but likeable class clown.
Presumably Burke’s intention with Crusader’s Cross was not full-fledged farcical comedy, but a magic show with rabbits continually pulled out of a hat. At some point, the sheer number of rabbits is bound to become impressive. I would rather have learned how one particular trick—the one concerning Ida Durbin, perhaps—was turned.
One of the more frustrating aspects of Crusader’s Cross is Burke’s penchant for heavy-handed pathos, especially the kind that does nothing to further the story. For instance, Dave has a run-in with Koko Herbert, the grumpy forensics guys who smells “like testosterone and beer sweat.” After a particularly tense discussion concerning the latest in a string of homicides, Dave says: “I’ll probably regret this, but did I ever do anything to offend you?” After brushing aside the question, Koko stands firm in the center of the room, “breathing loudly, emanating an odor that was close to eye-watering. ‘My son by my first marriage was a private first class in the United States Marine Corps. He was killed two months ago outside Baghdad. What was left of his Humvee wouldn’t make a bucket of bolts. He was nineteen fucking years old.’
He stared into space, as though he were trying to puzzle out the implication of his own words.”
In a novel that has nothing to do with a war, Dave Robicheaux isn’t the only one “trying to puzzle out the implication” of those words. Instead, the scene is an example of the empty emotion used to mark time in the book, used to squeeze sentiment out of the reader.
Crusader’s Cross has that churned-out feeling, written too fast and clanking over the speed bumps. In the past Burke has presented more carefully suspended dark mysteries; this one, rushed and overly stuffed, will linger in the air no longer than the smell of testosterone. Whatever that smells like.
James Lee Burke appears at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing Wednesday, July 13, at 7 PM.