Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke
Dave Robicheaux is a deeply troubled man. Not that you would know it. He only kills a few people every year and wouldn’t beat anyone up more than twice a week. But we like Dave at Rebel Voice. We like his style. We admire the cut of his jib.
Life was never easy for our favourite Louisiana police detective. When he was a child, his mother left him with his alcoholic father, to run away with a chancer. She never got in touch again and disappeared. Dave never knew what happened to her, until he encounters a street hood and pimp named Zipper Clum, who wants to buy some good faith with the cops. He tells Dave that his mother became a prostitute and died after being murdered by two cops. But Dave is uneasy. He is suspicious about any story that comes from a desperate deadbeat, but is still drawn to any news about what may have befallen his mother. Her fate starts to prey upon his mind in a way that it hasn’t done for many years.
Letty and Passion Labiche are twins from New Iberia, Dave’s neck of the woods. When they were children, they were both serially abused by Vachel Carmouche, the man responsible for running the electric chair in Louisiana. Eventually Carmouche left New Iberia and the girls grew to be beautiful women. The he returned and picked up where he left off, this time with another young girl. But his time ran out. Letty had had enough and was determined to prevent Carmouche from abusing another child and ruining another life. He was brutally killed and Letty’s defence, i.e. her previous abuse, was discounted at trial. She is close to her date of execution and Dave is determined to try to prevent her death. Robicheaux is a good man at heart, and feels that justice is not being done in the imminent execution of Letty. He knows that both Letty and Passion were violated but can’t prove it. He’s not being helped by his belief that both women are holding back on what really happened when Carmouche died.
Clete Purcell is Dave’s former police partner and still very close friend. Clete is probing into the circumstances surrounding Dave’s mother’s disappearance. He also finds himself in a relationship with Passion Labiche. Clete is also a favourite of Rebel Voice. We like his style and the cut of his jib. He punishes hoodlums by throwing them off a roof into a tree. They don’t die, but find themselves with an aversion to twigs. Clete is mundo cool.
Into this mix steps Jim Gable, a former cop who has progressed to become a liaison for City Hall in Baton Rouge. Gable married a very rich widow and has become a man-about-town, a parvenu with little-to-no morality. Gable’s name is linked to Dave’s mother via the Giacano family, Italian mobsters who paid off cops. As Dave and Clete dig into the story, they become convinced Gable is withholding valuable information. Jim Gable is the kind of man who keeps the head of a member of the Viet Cong in a jar in his study to make himself feel good. What a guy.
But it’s not all cops and criminals. Belmont Pugh is Governor of the State of Louisiana and his chance at reelection is approaching. He’s basically a decent if licentious man. Raised from working class stock, he made good, even if he has sinned quite a bit along the way. Belmont doesn’t want to see Letty Labiche executed. He believes her story about being abused. But as much as Pugh would like to see Letty freed, he doesn’t want to fall foul of the voters so close to the elections. He impresses upon Dave the need to find a way to get Letty off, so that his (Belmont’s) conscience can be clear. It’s a piece of typical politicking and Dave is not impressed.
As Dave investigates Gable’s past, his wife Bootsie, makes a startling admission. Bootsie had been married to a member of one of New Orleans’ Italian crime families. After her husband cleaned out her bank accounts and run off with a stripper, only to be killed, a vulnerable Bootsie was seduced by the cop investigating the incident. Jim Gable. It’s understandable that Dave is going through all kinds of emotional turmoil about this. It’s not Bootsie’s fault. It’s not Dave’s. Sometimes, shit just happens. Gable is aware of the discomfort Dave feels about the intimacy that existed between his wife and Gable, and plays upon it. What Gable doesn’t realize is just how dangerous Dave and Clete can be.
If you think that all of the major pieces to this puzzle are now covered, you’d be wrong. Purple Cane Road is a typical Burke book in that it is complex in plot whilst remaining simple in its presentation. There’s a lot to it but it never gets overwhelming. That’s the beauty of Burke books. All of the twists add tension and intrigue, but don’t smother what is a great story.
Connie Deshotel (great names in this story) is the Attorney General of Louisiana and also a former cop with ambition who climbed the ranks. She was a cop at the time of Dave’s mother’s disappearance. Inquiries reveal that she served alongside Jim Gable. Dave is becoming more certain that all the wrong, and most powerful of people, are in some way implicated in his mother’s disappearance and murder. But how to prove it?
Finally we have Johnny Remeta, a psychopathic gun-for-hire who has become somewhat obsessed with Dave’s adopted daughter, Alafair. Although still a high school student, Alafair has adopted some of Dave’s stubbornness and refuses to believe anything Dave tells her about Johnny, even when Remeta kills a number of men, admittedly bad ones, Alafair continues to defend him. It’s understandable that Dave might feel slightly worried that his teenage daughter is sometimes in the company of someone with serious mental health problems, and a gun. Papa Robicheaux resolves to take action, even if Remeta is killing all the problems in Dave’s life.
Throw in the deformed ex-carnie, Micah, who chauffeurs for Jim Gable’s rich wife and you have the makings of one hell of a story. Burke doesn’t mess around in the telling of his yarns. They are deep, meaningful but also hugely entertaining. The prose is, as has been said before on this site, pure poetry. It’s a joy to read the work of someone who is a true literary genius. Rebel Voice would like to have his babies, although not having either a womb or vagina might prove problematic in that endeavour. Not being gay is another.
As Dave digs deeper, the jagged strands of many turbulent lives in Louisiana entwine as pressure mounts on those under the spotlight. Dave finds his life under threat, not for the first time, as killers line up to stop him. Luckily he has Clete and Remeta to watch his back, although in Remeta’s case that might not be such a good thing. We also have the Bootsie story to contend with. Will they make it through their problems? And will Letty Labiche avoid the needle?
Purple Cane Road is a top notch novel. It’s got it all. Romance, violence, mystery, domestic tragedy, misplaced love, loyalty and ruthless ambition. In short, it’s typical Burke and the wonderful norm for all of the Dave Robicheaux stories. The backstory of Dave’s childhood is heartrending but not in a mawkish way. Burke adopts a more stoic approach to relating Dave’s past, but it’s effective nonetheless. It’s easy to picture the little boy terrified as his mother leaves and his father, a good man with simple problems, tries to raise his son. The ending of Purple Cane Road is one to remember. The last paragraph in particular is poignant to the point of putting a lump in your throat.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. This is yet another Burke classic and is one more example of why he is one of the greatest authors of all time. There is something for everyone in Purple Cane Road. It is exciting, action-packed, profound and pacy. The settings are glorious and you will feel as if you have lived in New Iberia and traversed the Cajun country after reading this. Burke has a gift for telling a tale in a straight fashion but with great style. He’s unique in his approach and always worth reading. This book is highly recommended.
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