The 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).
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
In this "wildly ambitious" Dave Robicheaux novel, chock-full of "local Louisiana color," Dave's "long, twisted" search for his mother's killers leads him to the darker places in his own past and teaches him what it truly means to be his mother's son. "Vintage Burke." "Begs comparison with Faulkner and Chandler." "I'd rate it a 5 beignets. Couldn't put it down - a must read." But ratings were lowered by some who felt it was "hard to follow."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HAfter the relatively lightweight Sunset Limited (1998), Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux returns in a powerhouse of a thriller that shows Burke writing near the peak of his form. Robicheaux faces his most personal case yet, when a pimp puts him on the trail of the truth behind his mother's long-ago disappearance. Meanwhile, he uncovers new evidence in the case of death-row inmate Letty Labiche, who took a mattock to the man who molested her as a child, state executioner Vachel Carmouche. Burke parades the usual cast of grotesques: feckless Louisiana governor Belmont Pugh; cold-blooded attorney general Connie Deshotel; sleazy police liaison officer Jim Gable, who "keeps the head of a Vietnamese soldier in a jar of chemicals"; and psychopathic hit man Johnny Remata, who acts as all-around avenging angel. Wife Bootsie's having had a fling with Gable drives Robicheaux into a jealous fury more than once, while daughter Alafair's flirtation with Johnny raises the temperature even higher. Old buddy Clete Purcell doesn't have a lot to do, other than to contribute to the general mayhem. Once Robicheaux learns that his mother fell afoul of a couple of New Orleans cops in the pay of the Giacano crime family, it's a simple matter of identifying the guilty pair and bringing them to justice--or is it? Burke winds up an often convoluted and gratuitously violent plot with a dynamite ending that will leave readers feeling truly satisfied, if a bit shell-shocked. Major ad/promo; author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Burke weaves a poetic impression of the bayou scenery of south Louisiana and peoples this paradise with as villainous a cast as one could find in any true-crime thriller. Dave Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic working in the Sheriff's department of New Iberia Parish, in the course of a routine arrest is recognized by the criminal. Dave is a very human and flawed hero who is working to try to bring justice to a violent world and perhaps, at the same time, a little peace to his tortured soul. Read by Nick Sullivan, this is an action-packed book; its violence is often graphic, but the story is compelling. Sure to be a hit with Burke's many fans, this story, the 11th in the series, is a must for all public libraries. Theresa Connors, Arkansas Tech Univ., Russellville Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Internet Book Watch
Iberia Parish homicide detective Dave Robicheaux, accompanied by private sleuth Clete Purcel, seeks a New Orleans pimp Zipper Chum on a capital case. When the duo catches up with Zipper in Baton Rouge, he tosses a verbal hand grenade at Dave involving the police officer's missing mother. Zipper accuses cops on the take from the Giacanos mob of killing Mae Guillory (her maiden name), a whore, in the sixties. Obsessed about what Zipper claims happened to his mother, Dave begins making inquiries into learning the truth, even at the cost of ignoring his family. Along the way, Dave begins to uncover new evidence on his "other" case that might free death row murderer Letty Labiche. However, as he makes progress on both cases, someone systemically kills his witnesses, making his mother's investigation impossible and probably leaving Labiche for the electric chair. The psychopath jump starts Dave into action when he targets the cop's daughter as one of his victims. Purple Cane Road is the best Robicheaux tale to date and that is saying a lot since author James Lee Burke has two Edgars to his credit. The story line is crisp and exciting as expected from the novels in this series. However, this time the plot turns personal which allows the audience to see much of the inner sanctum of Dave's soul. One of the great, perhaps the greatest mystery writer of the past decade, Mr. Burke scores on all cylinders with this taut thriller.
Internet Book Watch
Randy Michael Signor
I am getting very nervous about James Lee Burke. As each spring ripens into summer and I learn there is another Dave Robicheaux novel coming out soon, the jitters start. This is the guy, after all, who knocked off Robicheaux's wife very early in the series; he's not above taking serious risks with his characters, he has taken risks with his stock character from the beginning. Robicheaux is haunted by much of his life: his Vietnam experiences, which still visit him at night; his years as a New Orleans homicide cop, where he first learned that not all the bad guys were out of uniform; his wayward old days as a walking drunk; his family, past and present. His life has been messy and morally complex.
Though Robicheaux's ongoing recovery program has been less a featured issue lately, no one in his life can escape his alcoholic mind, which never seems to let up. He gets in plenty of trouble without having to waste time knocking back whiskey with beer chasers.
As the series goes on, each new release raises the distinct possibility that Burke will bump off a family member or close friend just to loosen the furniture, tilt the picture, add random elements. As a writer, he's capable of any kind of surprise.
So I conduct my own inventory in anticipation of a new book: Would it be his wife, Bootsie? Or is that unlikely since Burke already has written off one wife? Or Alafair, the adopted daughter, now grown into a young woman? Hmm. Burke is just starting to explore this character, who, until recently, has been little more than the stand-in as the object of parental concern; she had no distinct personality, was not much different from the pet three-legged raccoon, Tripod. Or would it be Clete Purcel, his old New Orleans homicide partner, an outlaw cop now scraping along by running down bail skips or providing a little muscle here and there on the edges of the edges of the mob? Or Batist, the old man who helps Robicheaux run the fishing outfitters joint on the lake?
As it turns out, Burke tries for it all, but only in a half-assed sorta way. What he finally does lacks commitment; he only flirts with danger. I never once believed the series would lose a character or two. And since he never intends to eighty-six anyone, he chooses to bluff us by deeply threatening two principal characters: Alafair and Purcel. As a threat, it's two-fer, a double whammy for Robicheaux: his only child and his oldest friend (a man he loves but hates himself for caring about).
How it comes about is this: Robicheaux learns about a prisoner who has been hinting he knows something about the mysterious death of Robicheaux's mother, Mae; the lowlife wants to make a trade for some jail time. Long haunted by his mother's death, Robicheaux is more or less stirred up from this point on, his desire to know the answer and to have his justice, his revenge, overwhelming any good sense. He crosses the line more times than a zigzagging drunk. This is one of those convoluted tales that has its inception back in time so that much of what is known is rumor or passed-along stories.
Immediately Robicheaux's attention focuses on a corrupt New Orleans vice cop, Jim Gable, who lives with a former screen actress. There is also on the perimeter the state attorney general, Connie Deshotel, an ambitious woman who started her career as a New Orleans beat cop. She exudes a dark, poisonous air, and you half expect her to transform into some kind of spider.
As it turns out, Bootsie and Deshotel went to high school together. And maybe Bootsie once slept with the rotten vice cop. These are not major issues, though they set up a thumping underbeat to the main story, which is Robicheaux's full-time obsession with finding his mom's killers and unloading a forty-five into their brains.
Skittering around in the background also, though leaping to the fore often enough, is Johnny Remeta, a young punk hired gun who has been double-crossed by the guys who hired him, and so he has turned maverick and performs the two-fold function of menacing Alafair and helping Robicheaux's quest, from afar, working his own kind of parallel investigation.
Also in the mix is Clete Purcel's romantic involvement with Passion Labiche, who is on the edge of the main story. His behavior, always ragged, becomes particularly dangerous as he continues to see himself as the lone force for justice; or maybe he just feels the urge to tune someone up, help them better align themselves with the general population. At one point it looks as if Purcel is likely to get either whacked or tried and executed as a murderer. But the ending is a letdown. Oh, Robicheaux has a tough hour or two wrestling with the notion of murder, either to revenge his mother's murder or protect Alf from the dark guardian angel she seems to have acquired in Remeta, who has taken it in his head to befriend her. But at the end of the day, Dave Robicheaux is still the guy in the white hat, and, tough as it is, those guys just don't back-shoot someone. Even someone who deserves it. And this book has plenty of folk who deserve something.
Another round of violence in New Iberia Parish leads sheriff's investigator Dave Robicheaux (Sunset Limited, 1998, etc.) to reopen the darkest mystery he's ever faced: the murder of his mother. The door into his past opens with startling suddenness. Letty Labiche has almost run through the legal obstacles keeping her from the death house for killing abusive ex-cop executioner Vachel Carmouche eight years ago when Dave learns that Little Face Dautrieve, a coke hooker from New Iberia, has been saving newspaper clippings on the case for her pimp, Zipper Clum. Braced by Dave and his friend Clete Purcel, a New Orleans shamus, Zipper blurts out the news that Mae Guillory, the mother who left Dave's father years before, had been drowned by a pair of cops back in 1967. The revelation acts like a starting gun for Daveand for melancholy, hyperactive out-of-town trigger-man Johnny Remeta, whose killing of Zipper is only the first in a string of half a dozen new murders. Politely insisting that Dave's just like him, Remeta appoints himself Dave's guardian angel. Dave would love to see this sensitive killer dead before he ingratiates himself too deeply with Dave's teenaged daughter Alafair. But he needs every bit of Remeta's despised help, because his no-fists-barred attitude toward the cops will end by antagonizing every law officer in Louisiana, from New Orleans Vice cop Don Ritter and powerful City Hall insider Jim Gable, whom Zipper insisted had offered to let Little Face skate in return for regular sex for both of them, to state Attorney General Connie Deshotel, as Dave tears through the ranks looking for Mae's murderers. Though the links among feloniescanbe insultingly casual, and the mystery is no more mysterious than a ritual sacrifice, Burke's powerfully evoked world shows why the past, as Faulkner said, not only isn't dead; it isn't even past. Literary Guild selection/Mystery Guild main selection
From the Publisher
"America's best novelist."
The Denver Post
"A thoroughly absorbing mystery packed with the colorful characters and moral dilemmas that have turned Dave Robicheaux into one of the more vivid literary creations of the last 20 years."
Daily News (New York)
"Nobody writes about the bad old days down South like James Lee Burke."
The New York Times
"No other living writer has been more influential on the contemporary crime novel than James Lee Burke.... This one is his best."
Michael Connelly, author of Void Moon
Don't miss James Lee Burke's sensational bestsellers:
"A heartfelt, passionate book ... powerfully bittersweet."
The Seattle Times
"Splendidly atmospheric ... with dialogue so sharp you can shave with it."
Available from Dell
Read an Excerpt
1Copyright 2000 by James Lee Burke
Years ago, in state documents, Vachel Carmouche was always referred to as the electrician, never as the executioner. That was back in the days when the electric chair was sometimes housed at Angola. At other times it traveled, along with its own generators, on a flatbed semitruck from parish prison to parish prison. Vachel Carmouche did the state's work. He was good at it.
In New Iberia we knew his real occupation but pretended we did not. He lived by himself, up Bayou Teche, in a tin-roofed, paintless cypress house that stayed in the deep shade of oak trees. He planted no flowers in his yard and seldom raked it, but he always drove a new car and washed and polished it religiously.
Early each morning we'd see him in a cafe on East Main, sitting by himself at the counter, in his pressed gray or khaki clothes and cloth cap, his eyes studying other customers in the mirror, his slight overbite paused above his coffee cup, as though he were waiting to speak, although he rarely engaged others in conversation.
When he caught you looking at him, he smiled quickly, his sun-browned face threading with hundreds of lines, but his smile did not go with the expression in his eyes.
Vachel Carmouche was a bachelor. If he had lady friends, we were not aware of them. He came infrequently to Provost's Bar and Pool Room and would sit at my table or next to me at the bar, indicating in a vague way that we were both law officers and hence shared a common experience.
That was when I was in uniform at NOPD and was still enamored with Jim Beam straight up and a long-neck Jax on the side.
One night he found me at a table by myself at Provost's and sat downwithout being asked, a white bowl of okra gumbo in his hands. A veterinarian and a grocery store owner I had been drinking with came out of the men's room and glanced at the table, then went to the bar and ordered beer there and drank with their backs to us.
"Being a cop is a trade-off, isn't it?" Vachel said.
"Sir?" I said.
"You don't have to call me 'sir' . . . You spend a lot of time alone?"
"Not so much."
"I think it goes with the job. I was a state trooper once." His eyes, which were as gray as his starched shirt, drifted to the shot glass in front of me and the rings my beer mug had left on the tabletop. "A drinking man goes home to a lot of echoes. The way a stone sounds in a dry well. No offense meant, Mr. Robicheaux. Can I buy you a round?"
The acreage next to Vachel Carmouche was owned by the Labiche family, descendants of what had been known as free people of color before the Civil War. The patriarch of the family had been a French-educated mulatto named Jubal Labiche who owned a brick factory on the bayou south of New Iberia. He both owned and rented slaves and worked them unmercifully and supplied much of the brick for the homes of his fellow slave owners up and down the Teche.
The columned house he built south of the St. Martin Parish line did not contain the Italian marble or Spanish ironwork of the sugar growers whose wealth was far greater than his own and whose way of life he sought to emulate. But he planted live oaks along the drives and hung his balconies and veranda with flowers; his slaves kept his pecan and peach orchards and produce fields broom-sweep clean. Although he was not invited into the homes of whites, they respected him as a businessman and taskmaster and treated him with courtesy on the street. That was almost enough for Jubal Labiche. Almost. He sent his children North to be educated, in hopes they would marry up, across the color line, that the high-yellow stain that limited his ambition would eventually bleach out of the Labiche family's skin.
Unfortunately for him, when the federals came up the Teche in April of 1863 they thought him every bit the equal of his white neighbors. In democratic fashion they freed his slaves, burned his fields and barns and corncribs, tore the ventilated shutters off his windows for litters to carry their wounded, and chopped up his imported furniture and piano for firewood.
Twenty-five years ago the last adult members of the Labiche family to bear the name, a husband and a wife, filled themselves with whiskey and sleeping pills, tied plastic bags over their heads, and died in a parked car behind a Houston pickup bar. Both were procurers. Both had been federal witnesses against a New York crime family.
They left behind identical twin daughters, aged five years, named Letty and Passion Labiche.
The girls' eyes were blue, their hair the color of smoke, streaked with dark gold, as though it had been painted there with a brush. An aunt, who was addicted to morphine and claimed to be a traiture, or juju woman, was assigned guardianship by the state. Often Vachel Carmouche volunteered to baby-sit the girls, or walk them out to the road to wait for the Head Start bus that took them to the preschool program in New Iberia.
We did not give his attentions to the girls much thought. Perhaps good came out of bad, we told ourselves, and there was an area in Carmouche's soul that had not been disfigured by the deeds he performed with the machines he oiled and cleaned by hand and transported from jail to jail. Perhaps his kindness toward children was his attempt at redemption.
Besides, their welfare was the business of the state, wasn't it?
In fourth grade one of the twins, Passion, told her teacher of a recurrent nightmare and the pain she awoke with in the morning.
The teacher took Passion to Charity Hospital in Lafayette, but the physician said the abrasions could have been caused by the child playing on the seesaw in City Park.
When the girls were about twelve I saw them with Vachel Carmouche on a summer night out at Veazey's ice cream store on West Main. They wore identical checkered sundresses and different-colored ribbons in their hair. They sat in Carmouche's truck, close to the door, a lackluster deadness in their eyes, their mouths turned down at the corners, while he talked out the window to a black man in bib overalls.
"I've been patient with you, boy. You got the money you had coming. You calling me a liar?" he said.
"No, suh, I ain't doing that."
"Then good night to you," he said. When one of the girls said something, he popped her lightly on the cheek and started his truck.
I walked across the shell parking area and stood by his window.
"Excuse me, but what gives you the right to hit someone else's child in the face?" I asked.
"I think you misperceived what happened," he replied.
"Step out of your truck, please."
"My cotton-pickin' foot. You're out of your jurisdiction, Mr. Robicheaux. You got liquor on your breath, too."
He backed his truck out from under the oak trees and drove away.
I went to Provost's and drank for three hours at the bar and watched the pool games and the old men playing bouree and dominoes under the wood-bladed fans. The warm air smelled of talcum and dried perspiration and the green sawdust on the floor.
"Have any locals pulled in Vachel Carmouche?" I asked the bartender.
"Go home, Dave," he said.
I drove north along Bayou Teche to Carmouche's home. The house was dark, but next door the porch and living room lights were on at the Labiche house. I pulled into the Labiche driveway and walked across the yard toward the brick steps. The ground was sunken, moldy with pecan husks and dotted with palmettos, the white paint on the house stained with smoke from stubble fires in the cane fields. My face felt warm and dilated with alcohol, my ears humming with sound that had no origin.
Vachel Carmouche opened the front door and stepped out into the light. I could see the twins and the aunt peering out the door behind him.
"I think you're abusing those children," I said.
"You're an object of pity and ridicule, Mr. Robicheaux," he replied.
"Step out here in the yard."
His face was shadowed, his body haloed with humidity in the light behind him.
"I'm armed," he said when I approached him.
I struck his face with my open hand, his whiskers scraping like grit against my skin, his mouth streaking my palm with his saliva.
He touched his upper lip, which had broken against his overbite, and looked at the blood on his fingers.
"You come here with vomit on your breath and stink in your clothes and judge me?" he said. "You sit in the Red Hat House and watch while I put men to death, then condemn me because I try to care for orphan children? You're a hypocrite, Mr. Robicheaux. Be gone, sir."
He went inside and closed the door behind him and turned off the porch light. My face felt small and tight, like the skin on an apple, in the heated darkness.
I returned to New Orleans and my problems with pari-mutuel windows and a dark-haired, milk-skinned wife from Martinique who went home with men from the Garden District while I was passed out in a houseboat on Lake Pontchartrain, the downdraft of U.S. Army helicopters flattening a plain of elephant grass in my dreams.
I heard stories about the Labiche girls: their troubles with narcotics; the bikers and college boys and sexual adventurers who drifted in and out of their lives; their minor roles in a movie that was shot outside Lafayette; the R&B record Letty cut in prison that made the charts for two or three weeks.
When I bottomed out I often included the girls in my prayers and regretted deeply that I had been a drunk when perhaps I could have made a difference in their lives. Once I dreamed of them cowering in a bed, waiting for a man's footsteps outside their door and a hand that would quietly twist the knob in the jamb. But in daylight I convinced myself that my failure was only a small contributing factor in the tragedy of their lives, that my guilty feelings were simply another symptom of alcoholic grandiosity.
Vachel Carmouche's undoing came aborning from his long-suppressed desire for publicity and recognition. On a vacation in Australia he was interviewed by a television journalist about his vocation as a state executioner.
Carmouche sneered at his victims.
"They try to act macho when they come into the room. But I can see the sheen of fear in their eyes," he said.
He lamented the fact that electrocution was an inadequate punishment for the type of men he had put to death.
"It's too quick. They should suffer. Just like the people they killed," he said.
The journalist was too numb to ask a follow-up question.
The tape was picked up by the BBC, then aired in the United States. Vachel Carmouche lost his job. His sin lay not in his deeds but in his visibility.
He boarded up his house and disappeared for many years, where to, we never knew. Then he returned one spring evening eight years ago, pried the plywood off his windows, and hacked the weeds out of his yard with a sickle while the radio played on his gallery and a pork roast smoked on his barbecue pit. A black girl of about twelve sat on the edge of the gallery, her bare feet in the dust, idly turning the crank on an ice cream maker.
After sunset he went inside and ate dinner at his kitchen table, a bottle of refrigerated wine uncapped by his plate. A hand tapped on the back door, and he rose from his chair and pushed open the screen.
A moment later he was crawling across the linoleum while a mattock tore into his spine and rib cage, his neck and scalp, exposing vertebrae, piercing kidneys and lungs, blinding him in one eye.
Letty Labiche was arrested naked in her backyard, where she was burning a robe and work shoes in a trash barrel and washing Vachel Carmouche's blood off her body and out of her hair with a garden hose.
For the next eight years she would use every means possible to avoid the day she would be moved to the Death House at Angola Penitentiary and be strapped down on a table where a medical technician, perhaps even a physician, would inject her with drugs that sealed her eyes and congealed the muscles in her face and shut down her respiratory system, causing her to die inside her own skin with no sign of discomfort being transmitted to the spectators.
I had witnessed two electrocutions at Angola. They sickened and repelled me, even though I was involved in the arrest and prosecution of both men. But neither affected me the way Letty Labiche's fate would.
From the Hardcover edition.