Purple Cane Road

Purple Cane Road

Journal Issue: 
Column Name: 
Journal Article: 

Purple Cane Road is somewhere in Louisiana, along a bayou through cane fields. The name conjures up visions of sugar cane catching the last colors of the sun as it sinks over the horizon to close the day. For Dave Robicheaux, the trick is to close the door on a day long ago when his mother was murdered. Mae Guillory's life had not been easy. Married to Dave's father, Aldous Robicheaux, she continued to look for the man of her dreams. She picked the wrong one when she left Dave's father.

Dave Robicheaux, known as "Streak" to his friend Clete Purcell, with whom he served as a policeman in the New Orleans police department, is a policeman in New Iberia, La. He is a self-proclaimed recovering alcoholic who lives with his wife, Bootsie, and an adopted daughter, Alafair, on a bayou near Avery Island on which he runs a bait and fishing camp when he is not policing.

When you open the book, Dave is involved in an investigation of the murder of a man named Vachel Carmouche by one of identical twins named Letty and Passion Labiche. Letty is on death row for the murder, but Dave is skeptical of her guilt. In the process of investigating Carmouche's murder, Dave gathers bits of information about his mother's death that pull him into a parallel investigation of her death.

As cliché as it is to describe a plot as a "tangled web," that is what you have in Purple Cane Road. Those involved in or on the edges of Dave's mother's death have roles in subplots involving a paid assassin who happens to murder one Zipper Clum, a source of information in both investigations. Interwoven throughout the story is political corruption and the role certain New Orleans police officers play in Louisiana politics. Those politics and Dave's determination to solve his mother's murder put him at the center of a plan to assassinate him.

The story is confusing at times, but the author's gift for vivid description keeps the reader in the action. If you have no sense of Louisiana culture, you will when you finish the book. While some of the slang used by the characters takes some contextual interpretation, its use places the characters squarely at home in their world of Cajuns, Creoles and Southerners. The reader is left with no choice but to enter that world with them.

James Lee Burke has written a number of novels such as Cadillac Jukebox and Heartwood, which have been reviewed in this column. The stories are always compelling and the action unrelenting. The value of the novels, however, is in the cultural insights expressed by the characters and in the way the author uses the English language. That use of language is pure artistry and it is an art that is being lost in our fast-paced world of video games and Internet use. Each sentence seems carefully crafted to fit with the next one to lead the reader smoothly and easily through the various plots and subplots that are characteristic of Burke's novels.

Fair warning: This is not a legal thriller. There's not a lawyer mentioned that I can recall. It is a thriller nonetheless and well worth the short time it takes to journey along Purple Cane Road. At the end of the day, at the end of the road, you will still be captured by the images, thoughts and feelings of Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, Letty Labiche and others you meet along the way.

Journal Date: 
Wednesday, November 1, 2000