"The New Iberia Blues" by James Lee Burke, Simon & Schuster, 447 pages, hardcover, $27.99
James Lee Burke may live in Montana, but he left his heart on Bayou Teche. And devoted fans of his Dave Robicheaux mystery novels can rejoice over this.
This, the 22nd in the series about the New Iberia detective, may be one of the finest. It's a lush work, filled with descriptions of Dave's beloved south Louisiana home, and Burke doesn't mind slowing down the murder mystery to dwell on the natural beauties of the fast-disappearing bayous and coast.
It's a "Hollywood meets Cajun country" tale, centering around Dave's conflicted relations with the three movie folks shooting an epic film there — and possibly committing gruesome murders in which victims are posed as tarot card figures.
Desmond Cormier is half-Chitimacha, born in abject poverty, who became a successful director and comes home to make his film. He's enigmatic, capable of kindness and cruelty in equal measure. And he's joined by an even stranger duo: Antoine Butterworth, a sadistic creep, and Lou Wexler, who brings out Dave's protective-father instincts when he begins mentoring adopted daughter Alafair, who's an aspiring screenwriter.
The mystery starts quickly, when the body of a young woman tied to a cross is seen floating near Cormier's Cypremort Point home.
Other murders follow, and the theatrical nature of the killings leads Dave to suspect the Hollywood gang. But other suspects show up, including an escaped convict from a Texas prison with local connections and some unsavory New Iberia cops who are shaking down prostitutes.
To complicate matters more, it turns out part of the financing for Cormier's movie comes from East Coast mobsters, which brings to New Iberia a psychotic hitman named Smiley, who has his own ideas about right and wrong.
Also with his own ideas on the subject is Clete Purcell, a private eye and ex-cop, a Falstaff figure with a penchant for cutting corners to bring bad guys to justice. He is Dave's unofficial partner, but it's the new official partner who causes the aging detective grief.
She's Bailey Ribbons, lovely and much too young for him. But Dave is smitten and torn by his feelings. He's also involved in a mostly-platonic relationship with a sexy, tough-talking blues singer who knows all about corruption and violence in their little community.
Dave is seeking comfort that neither visits to Mass nor AA meetings seem to give him. He's seeing visions, thinking about death, and increasingly frustrated at an investigation that appears to be going nowhere as the body count mounts.
Dave is also troubled by the loss of the land around him, ravaged by decades of neglect fueled by greed.
As the story moves along, most of the suspects wind up dead, so the identity of the murderer isn't a huge surprise.
But the whirlwind finish has Alastair in danger and Dave and Clete taking on the killer amid a hail of bullets and buckets of blood.
It's Burke at his best, set in a land he knows well, among people like no others in the world.