James Lee Burke

Dave Robicheaux - Police Detective, New Iberia, Louisiana

"Swan Peak"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 9, 2008)

“For a lifetime, violence and the shedding of blood had been [Clete’s and my] addiction and bane. We had traded off our youth for Vietnam and had brought back a legacy of gall and vinegar that we could not rinse out of dreams. We had learned little from the past and were condemned to recommit most of its mistakes. [Where we were now] was perhaps just another stopping-off place in our odyssey toward the destruction of everything we loved.”

Following the decimation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, described in James Lee Burke’s last novel, Tin Roof Blowdown, long-time New Iberia Parish detective Dave Robicheaux has accepted an invitation from Albert Hollister, a novelist and well-known “bunny hugger,” to spend time with him on his ranch in western Montana. Robicheaux’s long-time buddy, Clete Purcell, has not even started to recover emotionally from the destruction of the city of his birth, and Robicheaux persuades him to join him in Montana so they can spend some time fishing. For Purcell, “the booze he drank and the weed he smoked and the pills he dropped didn’t work anymore,” and Robicheaux is desperately afraid for his friend’s future.

Within days of their arrival, however, it is the past that finds them in Montana. Clete Purcell, fishing the Swan River, is accosted by two thugs, one of whom once worked for Sally Dio, a gangster involved in the casino industry in Nevada. Dio and his entourage were killed when their small plane crashed into the mountains, and suspicion has long centered on Purcell as the person who may have put the sand in the plane’s gas tank. The two thugs now work for wealthy Ridley Wellstone, who owns the property on which Clete has been fishing--a man who is financing a charismatic ministry which is operated by his young wife.

Running parallel to the Sally Dio and Ridley Wellstone plot threads is the story of Jimmy Dale Greenwood, a young man horribly abused by a prison “gunbull” during a two-year prison sentence. Greenwood has ultimately turned the tables, maiming his abuser and escaping to look for his own former girlfriend and their young son. Jimmy Dale, his abuser, and their girlfriends all end up in the same area of Montana, near Missoula and Flathead Lake, where Jimmy Dale is working on the Hollister ranch, the place where Dave and Clete are also staying.

In yet another plot line, two young college students are found tortured and murdered in the hills behind the Hollister ranch, and a Hollywood producer making a film nearby, along with his companion, are shot and burned to death at a highway rest stop. No one can figure out a motive these crimes, and there are no suspects.

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell, of course, become involved in all these plot threads, which soon overlap and explode, as Purcell, especially, seems unable to prevent himself from ratcheting up the violence. Living up to his family mottos, “Dust ‘em or bust ‘em, noble mon,” and “Take it to them with tongs,” he shows no signs that his vacation in Montana has allowed him to accept the horrors of Katrina or face his personal demons.

Author James Lee Burke has long been recognized for his ability to convey atmosphere through stunning descriptions and for his ability to create vibrant characters. That talent is on full display here as he warms to the opportunity to describe Big Sky Country with its fiercely independent residents and its spectacular natural resources. Despite the setting, however, the novel is extremely dark, filled with tormented, if not tortured, characters, all of whom are at the mercy of forces they cannot control.

Though there are a few hints that one or two characters may, in time, set their lives in order, most believe that “the world respect(s) brute force and brute force alone, no matter what people claim. They [make] a show of venerating saints and men and women of peace, but when they [are] against the wall, they want their enemies hosed down with a flamethrower.” Dave Robicheaux, who fights demons of his own, does not serve as Clete’s mediator against the world here, instead taking violent action himself, when necessary, to preserve “order.” Dave’s wife Molly, a former nun who has accompanied him to Montana, plays such a small role in this novel that she is virtually invisible in the action and as a force for the civilizing of Robicheaux and Purcell.

Long biographies of the many individual characters provide their unfortunate backgrounds and personal traumas and suggest reasons for their violent behavior, though they do not offer excuses and do not explain the occasional glimpses of empathy we see. True love appears to be the only inspiration for goodness, but that is a rare commodity here.

When the grand climax occurs, it is grand, indeed! The many, varied plot lines come together in a scene of non-stop action, killing, and near death experiences that attempt to show the final connections among the characters and resolve the lingering questions. The author never really explains how some of the characters actually extricate themselves from the immediate crisis, however, and even Dave Robicheaux, the narrator, cannot explain the details. “In truth, I cannot tell you with any exactitude what happened [that night],” he says. “I know that the rain falls and the sun rises on evil men as well as on the good and just. I know that on that particular night we were spared a terrible fate. At the same time, men whom a theologian would probably term wicked were put out of business. Perhaps we even made a dent in the venal enterprises they represent.” Somehow, after following so many plot lines and damaged characters for over four hundred pages, I expected a little more.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 136 reviews


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"The Last Car to Elysian Field"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 11, 2004)

"The chances were I would never take down [the suspect] for the murder of Junior Crudup. Nor did it look like I would solve the shooting of the drive-by daiquiri store operator or Fat Sammy Figorelli. The people who had committed these crimes did not have patterns and to one degree or another operated with public sanction."

The sleazy underside of New Orleans, past and present, pulses with life in this study of power and justice, murder and mayhem in a historic city with long-standing racial tensions. Once again, Dave Robicheaux is the homicide detective who takes on the task of trying to sort out crimes and bring evil-doers to justice, as he has done in many previous Burke novels. This time, however, we see Robicheaux as a darker, more vengeful seeker of justice, a man willing to do whatever is necessary to bring guilty parties to justice within this notoriously corrupt political and judicial system.

Read excerptIn past novels, Robicheaux's wife Bootsie, and his delightful and mischievous adopted daughter Alafair, have humanized-and to some extent, tamed-Robicheaux, reining in his tendency to act with his fists and emotions if he believes justice will be better served. But Bootsie has died tragically, the family home has burned to the ground, and Alafair is now in college, leaving a lonely and grieving Robicheaux without the support system which has previously tempered his actions. He has sold his bait and boat-rental business to his old friend Batist, and he leads a melancholy and embittered life as a detective in the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department.

Accompanying Father Jimmie Dolan through Toxic Alley, a wetlands area where waste disposal contractors have poisoned the groundwater and sickened dozens of young black children with their illegal dumping, Robicheaux visits the granddaughter of Junior Crudup, a blues singer and guitarist from the 1950s, who was sent to prison on a minor charge and disappeared into Angola Penitentiary, never to be seen again. His granddaughter has recently been cheated out of her grandfather's property by her nephew, in league with the owner of a waste management company, leading Robicheaux to comment that "The old plantation oligarchy was gone. But its successors did business in the same fashion-with baseball bats." One of those beaten for poking his nose where it doesn't belong is Father Jimmie Dolan, and Robicheaux determines to discover what happened to Junior Crudup in Angola fifty years ago, and who is responsible for the recent beating the Catholic priest.

At the same time that this plot is unfolding, three seventeen-year-old girls die in a car crash, shortly after stopping at an illegal "drive-by daiquiri store." The manager of the store soon shows up dead, and his connections to other, supposedly legitimate local businessmen come under scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the business of pornography and drugs bring Mafia hitmen into the city, and it is not long before Robicheaux, Father Jimmie Dolan, and Robicheaux's buddy Clete Purcell find themselves coming up against these thugs, with the out-of-control Clete inflicting gruesome tortures upon those who endanger people close to him. "Clete was Clete, a human moving violation, out of sync with both lawful and criminal society, no more capable of changing his course than a steel wrecking ball can alter its direction after it's been set in motion." Jurisdictional disputes between the police of Iberia Parish, the local police of New Orleans, undercover state investigators, and even the FBI add complications to this already complicated plot when Robicheaux refuses to limit his investigations to his own jurisdiction, endangering his own future and the work of other departments.

The several "creative" murders and several separate criminal investigations here, we understand, are all part of "normal" life in New Orleans, a place Burke describes as "an outdoor mental asylum located on top of a giant sponge." Successfully incorporating a great deal of historical background into the action, he shines a spotlight on the criminal activity, showing the reader its scope and giving some perspective on how and why the social problems we observe in the novel came into being. Marauding white street gangs of the 1950s, the systemic sadism of the penitentiary and its Red Hat Gang of the '50s, virulent racism, the rise to power and wealth of men engaged in dishonest businesses, the collusion of police and their reward of lucrative payoffs, the activities of organized crime syndicates, and the ability of those in power to manipulate both the political and legal systems are all shown to be contributing factors in the corruption we observe in these plot lines.

Like other novels by Burke, Last Car to Elysian Fields shows Dave Robicheaux to be a strong, principled man at odds with the system. The plot, though complex, does connect all the threads at the end, and the fast-paced narrative manages to be simultaneously descriptive and coldly brutal in tone. Darker and more cynical than earlier novels in which Bootsie, Alafair, and Batist "humanize" Dave Robicheaux, this novel depicts a man who no longer has anything to lose. Burke's imagination finds fertile ground for exploration in New Orleans, and one can only wonder what Burke has in store for Robicheaux in the future.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 160 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Last Car to Elysian Fields at MostlyFiction.com

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"Jolie Blon's Bounce"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark AUG 26, 2002)

Baby Huey shook his head. "Legion ain't no ordinary white man. He ain't no ordinary man of any kind."

This novel opens with Dave Robicheaux retelling an incident from his childhood; setting the background for the events he's going to be telling us about. One hot August night, the then twelve-year-old Dave and his half-brother Jimmy come across a parked car with two copulating couples in it, one in front, one in back. As the boys hurriedly turn away to leave, the front-seat woman speaks to them and then her man, whom she calls Legion, gets out of the car and threatens them. But this isn't an ordinary threat, or an ordinary man. Until this moment, Dave thought he understood how the world worked, that "no venal or Read excerptmeretricious enterprise existed without a community's consent," but seeing this man's eyes, Dave instantly understands that the "world contains pockets of evil that are as dark as inside of a leather bag." Dave and Jimmy run all the way to the safety of Ciro Shanahan's icehouse, because their father is out of town and this is the only man that their father truly trusts. Then Dave tells us about a bootlegging incident that involves his father and Ciro in 1931, and resulted in Ciro Shanahan doing time for their bootlegging boss Julian LaSalle.

So now we know a little background about the relationships that are about to rebound in the story that Robicheaux is almost reluctant to tell us about. As he says, the reason that cops, street reporters and caseworkers hang-around with their own kind is because if we knew what they know, we'd probably shun them. And that previous spring, Dave had picked up one of these cases. A sixteen-year-old honor student, Amanda Boudreau, is raped and shot to death; this was on a Saturday afternoon when she was out four-wheeling with her boyfriend. Shocking, unexpected and sad. A black man sitting on his porch saw the boy and girl drive past on the four-wheeler, saw them shoot a rooster tale and then disappear into the grove. He also noticed a car by the coulee with three passengers, one of which tossed a can out the window before moving in the direction that the kids went. A little later he heard a gunshot.

Sure enough, the police find the tossed can with fingerprints intact and it points to one Tee Bobby Hulin, a twenty-five-year-old black hustler and junkie with a four-inch wide case file filled with shoplifting and reefer charges. The worst he's done so far was to drive off from the back of a local Wal-Mart with a truck full of toilet paper. Tee Bobby is more trickster than miscreant. He's not the type to rape and kill. But they know that Tee Bobby was at the scene even though he's not giving up anything. Then they find a dirty black watch cap with the girl's saliva on it at Tee Bobby's grandmother's home out on Poinciana Island. Solid evidence, but still, it doesn't hang together in Dave Robicheaux's mind.

There is a lot more going on than just trying to find out the truth of Amanda Boudreau's murder. And not even the whole business of prosecuting and defending is clear-cut. Perry LaSalle owns Poinciana Island, where Tee Bobby lives. It is the former LaSalle Plantation and home to their lifelong employees. Perry LaSalle is also a lawyer and he's volunteered to defend Tee Bobby. Which may be good or bad. The prosecutor is Barbara Shanahan who is believed to have asked to be on the case to face Perry LaSalle.

When Dave and his partner Helen Soileau question Tee Bobby's grandmother about his whereabouts during the murder, she explains "This all started way befo' he was born. Ain't none of this that boy's fault." And thus Dave takes up the challenge to piece together the past to try to understand what doesn't add up in this case.

Then another woman is brutally killed. Linda Zeroski is a drug-addicted prostitute. But she's different than most. She attended Louisiana State University for three-years and is the daughter of an ex-button man for the Giacano crime family. Though Joe Zeroski would periodically come to New Iberia and pick his daughter up to have her dry out in a rehab, she always ended up back on the corner. On the same day that Tee Bobby Hulin is released from jail, a gas-guzzler of a car picks up Linda and two hours later she's beaten to death. So now Joe Zeroski and his clan are in town looking to revenge his daughter's killer.

Clete Purcell is also back in town and staying in the same motor court as Zeroski's gang. Clete is Dave's former partner, but is somewhat of a rogue individual. Sometime in the past Clete managed to get him and Dave thrown off the New Orleans police force. No matter how Clete appears to others, Dave knows that Clete is the best cop he ever worked with. Clete is now a bounty hunter sent to look for some sexual predator that his bosses, Nig and Wee Willie, had inadvertently set free by writing a bail bond without checking him out first. Their source of information is a man called No Duh Dolowitz, a thief that can't lie due to a head pounding that he once took; so No Duh spends a lot of time in lockup. In this case, he was jailed with a man who bragged about killing whores out west. Since the pervert was arrested with an alias, Clete doesn't know who is looking for. But that's only half of it with Clete and his "insouciant facade." He's a drunk and a known womanizer and ends up getting involved with both Barbara Shanahan and Joe Zeroski's niece, Zerelda Calucci. And more.

And it doesn't stop here. There's Marvin Oats, a Bible salesman who schleps around a suitcase strapped to a skateboard who seems to be everywhere and is known by everyone; a homeless vet who says he saved Dave's life as his medic in the war but can't remember his own name; Tee Bobby's agent Jimmy Dean Styles, a former boxer and current bar owner; and, the most menacing character of all -- Legion Guidry -- who does something so evil to Dave Robicheaux, he almost causes him to go off the wagon and lose his beautiful family. Yes, Dave is a recovering alcoholic.

Dave is probably the most normal in the book, but then again, this is told from his perspective. He is married to Bootsie (which I believe is a second marriage) and they have a daughter who is getting ready to go off to college. Besides being a cop, he owns a bait shack and boat rental business. A seventy-year-old man named Batist gives him a hand running the bait shack and sometimes Dave's daughter helps out as well. And Dave loves the blues. In fact, it might be one of the reasons that he has such a hard time believing that Tee Bobby Hulin was involved in Amanda Boudreau's murder. Tee Bobby is an unnaturally gifted musician "as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim." Tee Bobby's special talent is with the accordion and plays with a zydeco band. Did I mention that Tee Bobby has an idiot savant sister who is unusually talented artist? Let's just say that once the story reveals more about the past, we might wonder if Robicheaux would later explain this unnatural talent not as God's finger after all...

Anyhow, Dave is still a cop and does take advantage of his badge at times. His partner Helen can also be a bit of a loose cannon. There's no doubt that Dave, Helen and Cleave are the good guys, but their methodologies walk a fine line. Helen is one female partner that is not in the novel for her looks. Helen has "a masculine physique and was martial and often abrasive in her manner." She is also described as having a lumpy face and blond hair thick on her shoulders; now that is exactly how I might picture a female cop. Not these beauties they like to portray on T.V. and movies.

I've wanted to read a James Lee Burke novel for sometime as evidenced by the small collection of his books I've accumulated over the years, but hadn't made time until now. I'd heard all sorts of good things about his writing, most often running along the lines of saying that he is the most literary of the genre writers. Since I'm never exactly sure what "literary" really means and not so sure I'd classify it as such if I did, let's suffice it to say that I found his writing very intelligent, worthy of a slower read in which I could relish his descriptions. Burke does have an awesome command of the language. He infuses descriptions of the bayou country and its people with a mix of Cajun slang and ten-dollar words. He has a knack for making dialogues jump in and out of conversation and are spoken so true that it's like listening to a native tongue, just dripping with character -- you feel you know each of these people from they way they talk. And even though this is Cajun country, he keeps it all in English, rarely slipping into French, but still giving a sense of dialect; mot to mention sense of place. His style is a pleasure to read.

In this novel, Burke has created a complicated plot, taking liberty to mix up the themes of good and evil, maybe even, God and the Devil---or more specifically, an allegorical comparison of Jesus casting out the demon. Whatever, there is a bit of the supernatural or the unexplainable, what I might even classify as magical realism -- very unusual for a cop story and not unwelcome. Heck, he even includes the Easter Bunny. In the end one is left to speculate on the mysterious events that were kicked off by the investigation into Amanda Boudreau's death (which does eventually get solved). Personally, I found the whole good and evil thing a bit overwrought, but this did not detract from the experience of the novel --- following the investigations, meeting the characters, learning the history and being treated to the visual imagery of New Iberia. Oh yeah, I plan to read more...

  • Amazon readers rating: from 122 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Jolie Blon's Bounce at MostlyFiction.com

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Dave Robicheaux series:

Billy Bob Holland series:

Hackenberry Holland, Texas Sherriff Series:

Other novels:

Short Stories:


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

James Lee BurkeJames Lee Burke is a rare winner of two Edgar Awards for best crime fiction of the year. Writing since he was 19, he is the author of twenty previous novels, including many New York Times bestsellers. In all his novels, he depicts the squalid underbelly of American society and evokes a fallen world in which the gap between blacks and whites, the haves and have-nots grows ever wider.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Black Cherry Blues won the Edgar Award in 1989; and Cimarron Rose, Burke’s first novel featuring Billy Bob Holland, won the 1997 Edgar Award. Sunset Unlimited won the CWA/Macallan Gold Dagger for Fiction. Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directed Dixie City Jam. In 2000 Purple Cane Road was shortlisted for the Macallan Gold Dagger.

He lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.

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