Purple Cane Road

By James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke may well be the hottest name in crime fiction today. A consistent and prolific bestseller, he is also one of only two writers to win the prestigious Edgar Award for mystery writing twice (most recently for 1998’s Cimarron Rose). Clearly there is no reason for him to change any part of his proven formula for success.

Put another way, after nineteen novels he is starting to repeat himself.

His latest, Purple Cane Road is a violent crime story set in Louisiana. It begins with a cop named Dave Robicheaux trying to stop a woman being executed for killing the man who abused her as a child. But things really start heating up when Robicheaux learns that his mother was killed by a bunch of crooked New Orleans cops in the 1960s. The two crimes aren’t related at all, but everything else in this dark world of friends in high places and strangers in low, corruption and shady deals, is stuck together like pulp and fiction.

The one essential ingredient in Burke’s fiction is muscle. “You lift, don’t you?” the villain in this book asks Robicheaux. He doesn’t really need to ask. Of course Robicheaux lifts. Everyone lifts. Burke’s novels have more bulging biceps and cut abs than a Mr. Universe contest. Characters have arms with “the girth and hardness of fire plugs” and biceps “like croquet balls.” Even the women are buff and toned, and can be just as tough and deadly as any of the raging alpha males.

As you might imagine with all of these killer bodies on display, the plot emphasizes violence over detective work. This is tough guy fiction, a genre where muscles are more important than brains and mysteries aren’t solved so much as survived. People are thrown off roofs, punched in the face, smashed into walls, cut apart with broken bottles and beaten senseless with billy clubs. It’s a cage match on the bayou, and the last man standing wins.

Unfortunately the big guys don’t just walk the walk, they talk the talk. The weakest part of the book is the dialogue, which moves with the clumsy coordination of a skill player on steroids. Lines like “I’m going to find out who they are and hunt them down and kill them,” or “You stick your finger in my face again and I’ll break it”, are typical examples. (In Cimarron Rose the line was “If you put your finger in my face again, I’m going to break your jaw,” so I guess some sort of progress is being made.)

A monotonous brutality even levels any attempt at wit. Where is that wonderful Southern gift for understatement? The Cajun euphemisms for murder served up here – “flush his grits,” “cook his hash” – are poorer fare.

As a descriptive writer Burke is on more solid ground. His ancient Louisianian streets are lined with old houses that squat like “impacted teeth,” while the criminal class “clings to the underside of the city like nematodes eating their way through the subsoil of a manicured lawn.” Local colour with a genre spice gives the novel a background music all its own.

Like any popular writer Burke makes narrative seem as natural as respiration. This is a great book to kill an evening with. For readers in the mood for fast, brainless thrills, Purple Cane Road will be just the thing. Others, however, may feel that the author is spinning his wheels. If you’ve already made one visit to Burke territory then you can be sure this is one road you’ve been down before.

Review first published September 23, 2000.


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