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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux has spent his life confronting the old adage that the sins of the father are the sins of the son. But what of his mother's legacy? The specter of Robicheaux's mother, Mae Guillory — dead since his youth — is hidden deep in the recesses of his mind. When a notorious pimp refers to her as the whore some cops on the take murdered and then dumped in the bayou 30 years ago, the detective is not only shocked but determined to arrive at the truth. His heated search for his mother's killers leads him to the most soiled places in his own past — teaching him what it means to be his mother's son. Read more about James Lee Burke's most suspenseful novel yet in this Barnes & Noble.com review.
The Return of Dave Robicheaux
The past, always a significant element in James Lee Burke's fiction, is particularly present in Purple Cane Road, the 11th entry in the remarkable — and remarkably consistent — Dave Robicheaux series. This time out, Burke places Robicheaux — his troubled, violence-prone Cajun detective — at the center of two very different homicide investigations, each of which is rooted in the events of a traumatic past. One concerns the controversial murder of Vachel Carmouche, former executioner for the state of Louisiana. The other concerns an older — and much more personal — event: the 1967 murder of the former May Guillory, Dave Robicheaux's mother.
The novel begins just weeks beforethescheduled execution of Letty Labiche, a young mulatto woman convicted of the murder — and sexual mutilation — of Vachel Carmouche, known throughout the state as "the electrician." Convinced that Letty and her twin sister, Passion, had been systematically abused by Carmouche, Robicheaux embarks on an independent investigation, searching for anything that might contribute to Letty's defense. Along the way, he meets and interrogates a New Orleans pimp named Zipper Clum, who blindsides Robicheaux with his casual, unexpected remarks regarding May Guillory's murder.
According to Zipper Clum, May — who walked out on her alcoholic husband while Dave was very young — was a part-time card dealer and part-time prostitute who accidentally witnessed a gangland-style murder and was murdered in turn by an unidentified pair of New Orleans policemen. Shortly after his interview with Robicheaux, Zipper is himself murdered, shot to death before he can offer any further clues. Convinced that the story is at least partially true, Robicheaux sets out on an obsessive search for the answer to a 30-year-old mystery.
From that point forward, Purple Cane Road follows Robicheaux's progress as he sifts through the detritus of his mother's life and death, following a trail of corruption that leads backward in time from the political machinations of the present day to the mob-dominated world of 1960s New Orleans. His investigation proceeds with typical single-mindedness and brings him into contact with a vividly described gallery of Louisiana lowlifes. Included among them are Cora Gable, a faded, alcoholic former movie star; Jim Gable, a corrupt ex-cop who keeps the severed head of a Vietcong soldier in a jar in his office; Connie Deshotel, a powerful political figure with a questionable past; and Johnny Remeta, a young hit man with a genius-level IQ, a history of emotional disorders, and a troublesome attraction to Robicheaux's adopted daughter, Alafair.
Robicheaux's search for his mother's killers alternates with his search for the full truth behind Vachel Carmouche's murder. The result is a crowded, rather shapeless narrative that is occasionally difficult to follow but is still vital, moving, and beautifully composed. Sentence for sentence, James Lee Burke is arguably the finest stylist in contemporary crime fiction. No one writing today can match the sheer descriptive power of his prose. No one else evokes the beauty and squalor of the physical world with anything like his passion, clarity, and precision. In Burke's hands, the Louisiana landscape becomes a palpable presence, the perfect backdrop for his highly charged dramas of love, death, and redemption.
But the real heart of Purple Cane Road is, as always, Dave Robicheaux. From his first appearance (in 1987's The Neon Rain), it was clear that Robicheaux was a unique creation, a wonderfully complex character whose best qualities — courage, decency, a limitless capacity for love and loyalty — are constantly at war with his darker, more self-destructive side, which manifests itself in his recurring sense of spiritual emptiness and in his propensity for violence and alcoholic excess. Robicheaux's struggles with his own inner demons are as real and compelling as his external struggles with the representatives of a corrupt, deteriorating society, and they give these books an uncommon degree of emotional richness and psychological depth. If you haven't read the Robicheaux series — or anything else by James Lee Burke — you're missing something special. From The Neon Rain through Purple Cane Road, these are viscerally exciting novels that also constitute an ongoing, constantly deepening portrait of a soul — and a nation — in crisis. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).