In his riveting series of novels featuring principled but fallible Louisiana gumshoe Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke has carved out a peculiar niche in detective fiction.
His Delta-drenched tales are populated by morally impaired cops glistening with sweat; by calculating bayou beauties of every hue and circumstance; and by politicians, ravenous for power, who get their jollies by watching everyone else wallow through the muck.
A writer who seems to get better with every book, Burke doesn't so much tell a story as surround us with it.
"Purple Cane Road" (Doubleday, 341 pages, $24.95) plops yet another troubling obstacle smack in the middle of Robicheaux's rocky road toward self-respect. Those familiar with the series know that the detective was raised by a blustering, alcoholic father after his mother abandoned the family. Now Robicheaux learns that his mother, for whom he has developed a sad, groundless love, was most likely murdered by two corrupt New Orleans police officers. The story, as Robicheaux hears it, strongly suggests that she may have been a prostitute, and that the officers who killed her are still on the job.
With this news, Robicheaux's insistent demons, rumbling just below the surface since Burke first gave him breath, sever their restraints and all hell breaks loose. He's edgy, combative and blindly vengeful, a dervish whirling in the midst of a life that plods maddeningly along, refusing to embrace his pain.
At last, Burke shows us the Robicheaux he had previously only warned us about.
"Purple Cane Road" brims with Burke's arresting lyricism -- a style some have criticized as "overwriting." But it's not. Overwriting simply piles words upon words, each syllable plumper and more meaningless than the previous one. Burke's textured weave adds heartbeat and pulse to everyday images, giving his stories a sensory strength that is rare in the hard-boiled genre.
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