Last Car To Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke
This is number 13 in the Dave Robicheaux series, set in southern Louisiana. In this installment, the New Iberia detective is drawn into a decades-old case of a popular blues singer who vanished whilst serving time in Angola prison.
As is to be expected, such investigations are never simple, at least not in the life of Robicheaux. Dave finds himself at odds with the local bigwigs who may know more about the missing Junior Crudup than they are prepared to admit. It doesn’t help that Dave once shagged Theo, daughter of the plantation owner. It seems that when Dave was on the sauce, he was a horny Cajun bugger who sowed his seeds all over the region.
The condemnation of, and conflict with, the uber-rich, old money of Louisiana is a recurring theme of Burke’s novels. Dave is always on the war-path whenever a member of the Surplass is involved. Of course, most of them didn’t get rich by being nice people. Fortunes were made through slavery and land theft. It’s the same all over the world. James Lee Burke seems determined to highlight the grave injustices that followed such wealthy individuals and families throughout time.
In Last Car To Elysian Fields, which is yet another great title, Dave’s priest friend, Father Jimmy Dolan, has been attacked. Dave is fairly pissed off and goes in search of the culprit. He finds him, but it’s not simple to enact revenge. Father Jimmy is an idealist. He is a man of the people. He will fight tooth and nail to defend the people, and it is this that brings him into conflict with the corrupt and wealthy and uber-rich. See where I’m going with this?
Yet such details do not give too much away, as the plot twists and weaves one way and then the other through the bayous and swamps of Louisiana. Father Jimmy has a contract put on him, and it is this that introduces us to a manic, complex Irish hit-man who used to be associated with the IRA.
Max Coll is an entertaining character, described by the author as having a head that resembled a dirty Q-tip. Not the most flattering appraisal of a person that I ever heard. Yet the Republican militant is portrayed in a sympathetic light. He pops up all over the story speaking in a Hollywood Oirish accent. It’s not all bad though, as at least Burke tries to give some background to Coll.
Sadly, James Lee’s understanding of Irish politics is about as accurate as a vicar’s understanding of a brothel ( a nice and pure vicar, that is, one of the rarer ones that doesn’t wear his wife’s lacy undies when preaching to the faithful). He regularly speaks about ‘protestant militants’ in referring to Unionist death squads. It is very reminiscent of the back story given to Brad Pitt’s character in the movie, The Devil’s Own‘. If only the reality was that simple.
I won’t elaborate further on the complexities of politics in the Occupied Six Counties of Ireland. Suffice to say, that Burke’s take on it will be sufficient for those who are not Irish. It’s not a criticism, just a fact. As they say, why let the truth get in the way of a good story? It may be that Burke has a sneaking regard for Irish Republicans and, if so, I’ll applaud him for that.
Back to the novel, Father Jimmy has attracted the attentions of the Italian mafia. Again, the Mob are regular features in this series, as are serial killers. We have the ubiquitous serial killer in this one too. On describing one of the Italians, Burke’s best character, Clete Purcell, has this to say, ‘Look, big mon, Frank Dellacroce’s mother was probably knocked up by leakage from a colostomy bag.’
Clete is, for me, the star of this particular novel. OK, Max Coll is certainly a hoot, but Max is inconsistent. The Irish professional killer is bettered by the priest whilst still able to kill any number of other pro-killers. There are scenes involving Max that play well but just don’t ring true. I got the feeling that the author wanted desperately to include a Max Coll character, but then struggled to find his voice in the maelstrom that is Dave Robicheaux’s life. Coll could have been much, much better. He is still a good laugh though.
But it’s Clete who shines. There are scenes and escapades that will make the reader cringe and laugh at the same time. Look out for the episode involving the trailer containing the paedophile. I was tempted to cheer out loud at that one. Clete definitely deserves his own book. I notice that there are Purcell hats and t-shirts for sale on the James Lee Burke website, so others must feel as I do about the likeable and massive maniac from New Orleans.
So Dave digs, Clete swigs and the nasties rig the game to make life hard on both. Dave’s battle to refrain from drinking is constant. The spectre of both the Korean and Vietnam wars is ever-present. The poverty and injustice of modern society is to the fore in every scene. A Dave Robicheaux novel is an exercise in social commentary and moral analysis. I just wish that Robicheaux would carry his fucking gun with him.
Again and again, we see Dave wandering around unarmed. Crazed deviants and contract killers abound, yet the New Iberia detective goes for a jog in a remote area with no means of protection. He strolls into and out of seedy bars without watching his six (I learned that term from watching Vietnam War movies). He is so laid back that he makes Jim Morrison look like Larry from Curb My Enthusiasm. I find it disconcerting that Burke is so casual with the behaviour of Dave. Perhaps it’s designed to demonstrate Dave’s self-destructive tendencies. Or perhaps it’s just a plot mechanism that flies in the face of logic. Whatever it is, it frequently pokes at me.
That said, Burke’s writing is so beautiful and profound that he escapes true wrath every time. His depictions of the scenery and the people of southern Louisiana are exceptional. His asides are remarkable. He never overdoes it with the dreams, as some authors do. He provides solid back stories to a plethora of characters that really fleshes out the narrative.
Upon reflection, I began to realize that if Burke’s writing was not as good, and if his characters were not so engaging, then his novels would be fairly average. The plots are good, but as mentioned previously, there can be a lack of consistency and logic. It hurts the overall effect, but nowhere near enough to damn the books. Last Car To Elysian Fields is a good example of this. Upon closer inspection the reader will find holes and flaws. But the writing is so good, the pace is so well measured, and the settings and people so interesting, that such failures are overlooked without realizing they are there. That is the measure of a true wordsmith.
This is the book that will make a great movie. It has all the ingredients necessary to make a block buster. Perhaps James Lee had that in mind as he penned it. Regardless of his intentions, it is a great read. If it’s your first book by Burke, then it’s a good one to start on. If it’s not, then it’s a good one to continue on. It’s a very good book.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Don’t dwell on the back story of the former IRA gunman and you will enjoy this tale a lot more. James Lee ticks a lot of boxes with this one.
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