Words, Music & Screen
Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty
AUGUST 12, 2020
A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL
by James Lee Burke
Book Review by Thomas Itty
“A Private Cathedral” is 83-year-old Burke’s 40th novel and the 23rd in his Dave Robicheaux series. I always look forward to his books and this one certainly isn’t a disappointment — even though Burke delves deeper into the netherworld here than he usually does. I am a rationalist and have a hard time believing in such things. However, Burke manages to merge it seamlessly with the real world so I had to suspend my disbelief only slightly. There are always ghosts, apparitions and other out-worldly situations that Robicheaux and his best friend and partner, Clete Purcel, experience in all the books but they are usually attributed to dreams, childhood memories, alcohol, illness or drugs.
"A Private Cathedral" goes back in time to the late 1990s. Dave is a recent alcoholic who’s on suspension from the police department and Clete is working as a private eye. The setting for all the Robicheaux novels is primarily in and around New Iberra Parish, Louisiana (about 125 miles from New Orleans). Racism, anti-semitism, remnants of the Civil War and Cajun culture all play a significant role in all the books in the series. Both Dave and Clete are tormented by what was done to them as children and what they did to others as soldiers in the Vietnam War. At this point in the series' time-line, Dave is twice widowed. His first wife was killed in a hit meant for him in “Heaven’s Prisoners” (which was made into a movie in 2004 with Alec Baldwin playing Robicheaux) and his second wife dies slowly of Lupus.
The novel begins with Dave meeting Isolde Balangie, a 17-year old Italian-American girl at a Huntsville amusement pier. She’s with Johnny Shondell a young guitarist and singer of extraordinary talent.
“Johnny’s musical talent was one step short of cosmic… He’d hooked on to the tail of a comet and would defy both morality and improbability. In the journey across the heavens he’d sprinkle the rest of us with stardust…”
Both Isolde and Johnny come from very old New Orleans mafia crime families who are bitter enemies going back 400 years, to the old country. As a police officer, Dave is very familiar with both the Belangie and Shondell clans. He’s taken aback when Isolde tells him that Johnny is delivering her to his uncle Mark Shondell as a sex slave to maintain peace between the families. However, along the way the two youngsters have fallen in love. Dave doesn’t want to get involved with their families so he tells Isolde he doesn’t want to hear of her troubles. It pricks his conscience, however, when he’s lying in bed that night… and we know he’ll do his best to save her and bring the young lovers together.
Dave and Clete visit Mark Shondell to try and convince him not to molest Isolde, but he denies that is his intention. So they go and see her parents Adonis and Penelope Belangie to try and get them to bring back their daughter. They say the deal has implications that are much bigger than Dave and Clete can comprehend and there is nothing they can do about it. When the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide (as Clete likes to call themselves) persist, Shondell sends a time-traveling assassin named Gideon Richetti to kill them both. However the duo have a guardian angel watching over them in the form of a trash-talking, young, beautiful Jewish mother named Leslie Rosensberg (who was once a stripper and is now the mistress of Isolde’s step-father Adonis).
In Burke's 1993 novel “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead” Dave has dreamlike conversations with a dead confederate cavalry officer General John Bell Hood in in the mist of the bayou. There is a pretty decent movie of the book starring Tommy Lee Jones as Dave Robicheaux on Netflix with Levon Helm (from The Band) playing the confederate army general. Indeed, Burke sees all evil and violence (including those committed by his heroes) as coming from a place that is outside this world… a place of darkness and terror. Life on earth is a constant struggle between good and evil and his flawed heroes Dave and Clete are the knights-errant — righting wrongs with chivalric deeds and protecting the innocent.
In the following excerpt from "A Private Cathedral," Dave goes on a rampage after Adonis Belangie shows him a documentary film from 1940 featuring Benito Mussolini which also has the time-traveling assassin Gideon Richetti in it as a warning not to get involved in the matter of his step-daughter Isolde and the Shondell family.
Music is an integral part of all James Lee Burke books and this one is no different. (JLB is himself a musician and there are several videos of him playing with his band on YouTube. He loves the key of E-maj and never fails to mention it in his books as hed does here.) Johnny Shondell is an Elvis or Johnny Cash type figure whose failings are all redeemable because of his awesome talent. He's a heroin addict and does not stand up to his uncle for Isolde, but both Dave and Clete feel very protective of him because of his musical ability.
"The speed of his fingers was stunning. Clete once saw Robbie Robertson and Eric Clapton perform together. It was the only time he had seen anyone faster and more graceful than Johnny."
“A Private Cathedral” is as good as it gets in the noir fiction genre and Burke goes into vivid descriptions of torture and depravity that can at times be hard to stomach. Full of extreme violence, this book is not for the faint of heart — but it is always obvious that our two heroes are protected by some higher power, no matter how dire the situation.
As Leslie Rosenberg (the angel) tells Dave, “You’re a good man... so is Clete. No evil can ever destroy you.”
JAMES LEE BURKE