Poor Dave Robicheaux. After years of solving crimes too close to home, the brash, volcanic homicide detective carries more psychic baggage than even a cop ought to expect: one wife murdered, another with a mobbed-up past, the crushing toll of his own epic struggles with the bottle and with the endless corruption in the New Orleans police force. Now some pimp claims Dave's estranged mother was a whore, killed by the NOPD.
Thus begins James Lee Burke's Purple Cane Road, his eleventh Robicheaux novel. Burke's best-selling series is showing fewer signs of fatigue than most long-running mystery franchises -- partly because of the superior writing, but also because of the tragic sense of life embodied in his bullheaded Cajun protagonist. "Dave's origins are in the Elizabethan theater," says Burke. "His undoing lies within himself."
A Texas native who grew up on the Gulf Coast, Burke held a number of odd jobs across the country (roustabout, college professor, social worker, journalist -- even a land surveyor in Denver at one point) before he turned to writing novels rooted in the bayou country of his childhood. He now divides his time between Montana and Louisiana, alternating between the Robicheaux saga and a series featuring small-town Texas lawyer Billy Bob Holland.
Purple Cane Road, in which Robicheaux must come to terms with the adulterous mother who abandoned him, is being hailed as one of his best. The plot is a mess, but Burke's fans don't expect a by-the-numbers whodunit. What they do expect, and what the novel delivers, is the sweat-drenched atmosphere of good ol' boys swigging Jax in bait shops and shotgun shacks, with plenty of detours to back-alley saloons, where hustlers of all types "cling to the underside of the city like nematodes eating their way through the subsoil of a manicured lawn."
Although he's won two Edgar awards, Burke has always shunned the formulas of typical mysteries. He read his first Dashiell Hammett only a few weeks ago and resists being labeled as a crime writer. "I read Jim Crumley and Charles Willeford, both of whom have been friends of mine," he says, "but that's my only exposure to mystery or crime writing. I don't know much about it. The term is used derogatorily. It's usually applied to books that emulate one another.
"The fact is, we have all kinds of great writers who are never thought of as crime writers. Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers won a National Book Award. No one ever calls it a crime novel. No one calls Hamlet a crime play."
Burke's latest offering pits Robicheaux against a twisted cast with almost demonic qualities, including a child molester who once conducted executions for the state and a curiously sympathetic hit man -- people who "deliberately try to murder all light in their soul."
These are not caricatures, Burke insists. "I've known them," he says. "Everyone has. You shake hands with certain people, and there's something like black electricity that goes right up your arm, and you know it: This guy's right out of the abyss."
Or the statehouse. Not so coincidentally, some of the worst people in Purple Cane Road, like the aforementioned executioner, work for the government. Layered into the novel's tangled tale of personal loss and revenge is a subplot concerning the arbitrariness of the death penalty. Robicheaux is ambivalent about the subject, but his creator isn't.
"It's the evil that insinuates itself into the mainstream that does the most damage," Burke says. "Every time I see a crowd cheering because some guy was just injected, I know that guy was reborn somewhere in that crowd."