Purple Cane Road, by James Lee Burke
Dave Robicheaux has always been a dubious hero. He's a reformed alcoholic and a man of uncontrollable temper, only slightly less violent than his best friend, Clete Purcel. In the previous novels, we have seen him bottomed out, after the murder of his first wife, watched him grow away from the demon side of his mind, learned the terrible history of his childhood and years in Vietnam. In *Purple Cane Road*, everything he has done to become a better human being is tested. He is presented with an investigation tries all his restraints, the murder of his own mother.
Fifteen or so years ago, when Robicheaux was a pitiful drunk, he tried unsuccessfully to help twin mulatto girls who had been given up to the abuse of a white man living near them. The white man went away a few years later, and then came back. The night he returned, one of the girls slaughtered him like a pig. Now, eight years later, Letty Labiche is in prison, awaiting execution, and Robicheaux suspects that the story of the murder is more complicated than it seems. A young whore, Little Face Dautrieve, admits to witnessing the murder; she was twelve years old when the pedophile came home.
That plot in itself, the need to make right what he calls his own failure of so many years ago, could have driven the book. But the main story line is Robicheaux's discovery that his mother, who has haunted the novels since the beginning, was murdered. When Dave and Clete track down Little Face's pimp and question him, he tells Dave that he knew Dave's mother Mae. She was also a whore, he explains, and murdered by a couple of crooked cops because she was a witness to another crime.
We know, from the other novels, that this is all too likely. Robicheaux reprises what we know: the man Mae ran away with to LA, the sleazy gambler she finally took up with after she came back, Dave's last sight of her, right after he returned from Vietnam, a "beer fat" waitress in a Morgan City bar, grinding her hips against a customer's groin while they danced. And the rest of the novel ties a hundred threads and themes snugly together.
Dave's wife Bootsie had a affair, before they got together, with Jim Gable, the former cop who is Dave's prime suspect (and one of the nastiest characters Burke ever created). The Attorney General, Connie Deshotel, went to school with Bootsie, has some obscure connection to Gable, and attended a party, many years ago, at the brothel/bar run by Letty's parents. When everything comes clear, the persuasiveness of the prose helps us set aside the mountain of coincidences.
It is a novel in which subplots weave tightly into the main story. A strange young hit man (Johnny Remetz) kills the pimp, probably to shut down the hunt for Mae's killers. Then fails to kill the young prostitute, because she has a baby to take care of, and finds himself hunted by his employers. Through an odd twist of fate, Robicheaux saves his life, when he falls into the hands of the crooked cops, and Remetz decides he owes Robicheaux. So he sets out to identify Mae's killers and systematically wipes out the guilty parties as their names emerge from the evidence. But he also becomes obsessed with Dave's daughter Alafair, who meets him outside the context of violence and develops a crush on him that drives a wedge between her and her father.
The craft of a Burke novel is impeccable. In less practiced hands, the machinery of coincidence and synchrony would fail. He is a beautiful stylist, a writer of relentless integrity, one of our finest. Most of the Robicheaux novels are about redemption, and the redemptions that conclude this novel are the most surprising and satisfying. *Purple Cane Road* ranks with James Lee Burke's best work.
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