James Lee Burke is the author of many detective novels (and other books as well) starring Detective Dave Robicheaux, of which Purple Cane Road is another.
He has won an Edgar Award (for Black Cherry Blues) and has even been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for The Lost Get-Back Boogie, a collection of short stories.
So if awards mean anything, we
can expect that we are in the hands of a fine writer when we pick up Purple Cane Road to read, and that indeed proves to be the case. The book is well-written, even poetic in parts,
as when Burke describes the countryside around New Orleans, and well-plotted. This is not a Sherlock Holmes-type mystery
in which solutions hang on logic and deduction, but a gritty, hardnosed mystery that requires tough police work to resolve.
And Dave Robicheaux is tough enough for the task. He has no objection to putting his fist in faces to get answers and/or personal satisfaction. His friend, Clete Purcel, is, if anything, tougher and meaner than Dave is and, at one point early in the book, Clete threatens to throw a pimp off a roof if he doesn't tell Dave what he knows about a crime. Ultimately the pimp, Zipper Clum, is thrown off the roof although Clete is kind enough in doing so to aim him for a tree so that the fall will be somewhat broken.
The book opens with talk of a certain Vachel Carmouche, a former executioner for Louisiana, and then tells of his murder by Letty Labiche, who is sitting on death row waiting to be executed for "executing" the executioner.
"Executing," because Vachel earned his murder by molesting Letty (and her twin sister, Passion) when she was a child years earlier and gave every indication he was not averse to molesting more children even years later.
The past haunts people in this novel. As Vachel was killed in part for crimes he committed decades ago, so is Dave haunted by a crime committed against his mother many years earlier. She was killed, murdered, by crooked cops, as Dave finds out from Zipper Clum (just before he's thrown off the roof):
"These cops were on a pad. For the Giacanos. She saw them kill somebody. They held her down in the mud, then rolled her into the bayou," Zipper said.
Dave wants to learn the truth of his mother's death and make those who killed her pay. Even though the crime occurred more than thirty years ago, it is a crime that he must avenge.
Zipper is brutally murdered by a hired killer who may or may not be working
for a gentleman named Jim Gable, a "liaison wheel with the mayor's office." Gable in the past had an affair with
Dave's wife, and may also have had some connection with the murder of Dave's mother.
From there readers wend through a series of twists and turns -- and surprises
-- to the end. Purple Cane Road definitely holds your interest all the way through to the final page. One of Burke's strengths is his ability to describe the Louisiana countryside. His writing is unusually literary for a mystery novel, most of which have a tendency to read like newspaper accounts of a crime.
"...almost to Point au Fer. The sky was gray and roiling with clouds and I could smell salt spray on the wind. I went down a dirt road full of sinkholes, between thickly canopied woods that were hung with air vines, dotted with palmettos, and drifted with gray leaves. The road ended at a sunless, tin-roofed cypress cabin that was streaked black with rainwater. A man sat in a chair on the front porch, his stomach popping out of his shirt like a crushed white cake, a guitar laid flat on his lap."
Fine writing permeates this book, but there is a certain lack of passion in parts of the novel
-- or rather less passion than there could have been. The book has its moments
of gripping suspense and action of course, but the author somewhat arbitrarily
dismisses his chance to add more. This is because of the choice Burke makes when detailing a scene to us. He chooses at times to leave off at a key moment and then reveal to us at a later time what has occurred, by which time the true drama is past. For example, we only learn that Zipper Clum has been in fact thrown off the roof later on when Dave's superior is talking to him about it. The actual scene breaks off before it happens.
Or, on page 114, when Dave is talking to a key character:
"Far across the lake, the sun was just a red ember among the trees. "I tell you what, Ms. Deshotel," I said, turning form the screen.
It's another few paragraphs before the reader learns what Dave said. This kind of occurrence in the novel, here and there,
is a little off-putting. But this is a small complaint against what is, when all is said and done, a fine, intelligent and unusually well-written mystery novel. A thoroughly enjoyable book.
"Connie," she said, smiling with her eyes.
Then her mouth parted and her face drained when she heard my words."
© 2002 by
Mary B. Stuart for Curled Up With a Good Book