Purple Cane Road

Dave Robicheaux thought the worst of his past was over years ago when he was as an active alcoholic, but when a pimp tells him he knows something about the murder of Dave's mother back in the late 1960’s, Robicheaux is sent down a road of drugs, prostitution, and dirty cops which seems to have no end, and a trail which draws in even the attorney general and governor of Louisiana. Fortunately, much of the violence takes place offstage, where characters with names like Zipper Clum and Little Face Dautrieve carve each other up, but the violence threatens Dave and wife Bootsie when a hit man starts to stalk their adopted daughter Alafair. The unrelieved tension in James Lee Burke’s mystery is exactly what readers have come to expect from Burke. “It's the violence,” Dave confesses to Bootsie. “Nobody should have to live around it.” The Robicheaux family does, and readers will enjoy it from a safe distance.

The elements that put Burke a cut above most contemporary crime writers are his settings and language. Dave works as a homicide investigator and runs a boat-rental and bait business on the bayou south of New Iberia, outside of New Orleans, and the muggy Louisiana atmosphere adds to the tension. Burke is also adept at capturing the dialect of his characters, sprinkled as it is with words like “loupgarou,” “juju,” and “boudin.” The language, like the setting, defines another first-rate Dave Robicheaux mystery.

Literary Techniques

As in some of his other work, Burke uses the technique of doubling to blur the lines between good and evil in order to represent a modern world with few, if any, absolutes. Thus, Johnny Remata displays some traits similar to Robicheaux, including intelligence, a distrust of authority, and a fondness for Alafair. Both men come from rural Southern roots—Robicheaux from the Louisiana bayou, and Remata from the backwoods of Southern Appalachia. Robicheaux sets out to murder Remata to prevent him from further threatening his family, but finds himself at the last minute unable to pull the trigger. Similarly, Remata fails at one of his contract assignments, unable to kill a young woman with a small child. When three corrupt New Orleans police officers attempt to murder Remata, Robicheaux saves his life and one of the three officers dies. When Axel Jennings, one of the two remaining officers, attempts to murder Robicheaux, Remata saves him by killing Jennings.

Burke also continues his experiments with shifting point of view and setting, overcoming the weaknesses of first person narration by, in effect, ignoring them. In some cases, Robicheaux merely repeats the stories that other characters have told him—if the information seems exceptionally detailed in places, one grants, perhaps, some poetic license. Similarly, when Robicheaux richly describes the events of the last few hours of his mother's life based upon rather sketchy data, one forgives his...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

James Lee Burke's reputations both as a Southern writer and as a member of the hardboiled school have continued to grow with each successive work. His fiction incorporates some of most important themes and constructs from both traditions, and each new novel seems to explore in greater detail the genres in which he writes. In fact, Burke has been considered one of the most innovative contemporary hardboiled writers—in part, because he has interwoven the two genres so flawlessly into one body of work, without being limited by either set of conventions.

Burke has said that his themes are universal, and transcend any one particular region. Certainly, neither racism nor the problems of crime or of the apparent evil in human nature limit themselves to the South, and Burke's enormous popularity argues for some level of transcendence beyond the borders of the old Confederacy. Nonetheless, he seems especially cognizant of the importance of understanding the past and its effect on the present, and his novels demonstrate his awareness of the lingering legacy of slavery and the Civil War on the New South.

1. Burke certainly argues for the existence of evil in humanity, but from where does he seem to think that evil originates? Is it a part of human nature, as Jim Gable may indicate, or does it have to be learned, as in the case of Johnny Remata?

2. Robicheaux, having witnessed two executions, seems convinced of the wrong of capital...

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Social Concerns

Tames Lee Burke's first detective novel I featuring Dave Robicheaux, The Neon Rain, begins with an interview between Robicheaux and a death row inmate. Robicheaux returns to the question of capital punishment in Purple Cane Road, the eleventh novel in the series, and his comments on the evils of placing social expedience over respect for individual people remain strong. Purple Cane Road opens with a description of Vachel Carmouche, an executioner referred to in official government documents as "the electrician." Thus, in the opening lines of the novel Burke also introduces another of his main themes: the ability of both society and individuals to blind themselves to the reality of a cruel, sometimes random world, mitigated only by the warmth of friendship and family.

Burke makes his attitude towards capital punishment clear in the novel by carefully choosing its supporters and detractors. Carmouche, clearly a villain in the novel, loses his job over his comment to the press that electrocution does not inflict enough pain and suffering on its victims to do justice for their crimes. Likewise, Jim Gable, one of the two people responsible for the murder of Robicheaux's own mother over thirty years earlier, says virtually the same thing about the more modern method of inflicting death by lethal injection: "Letty Labiche doesn't deserve to die by lethal injection. She killed a lawman. I think she should be put to death in the electric chair, and not all at once, either." Belmont Pugh, a sympathetic but not particularly admirable character, takes a middle-of-the-road view, favoring capital punishment in general but objecting to it in this instance only because it is to be inflicted on a woman.

On the other hand, Robicheaux has witnessed executions before, and was "sickened and repelled" at the sight, even though he had helped bring the men to justice. He recognizes the change in method of execution for what it is—a method designed to be more palatable to the institution: she would "die inside her own skin with no sign of discomfort being transmitted to the spectators." Robicheaux's good friend and former partner from the Homicide Department of the New Orleans Police Department, Private Investigator Clerus Purcel, likewise has witnessed his share of executions, specifically of political prisoners in Vietnam, and he also generally disapproves of the practice. Also, Robicheaux's wife, Bootsie, condemns the death penalty because it "empowers the people we execute. We allow them to remake us in their image."

Robicheaux's outlook on this issue is more complex, however, than it may first appear. Although he agrees with Bootsie's basic premise that, as a...

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Literary Precedents

Like the other novels in the Robicheaux series, Burke's Purple Cane Road includes fundamentals of both Southern and detective literary traditions. Edgar Allen Poe, himself a southerner, invented the detective story with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), even if other early detective fiction, like Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1899), seems more characteristically Southern than Poe's tales of French ratiocinator Auguste Dupin. Burke has been called "the Faulkner of crime fiction," and he represents a legitimate heir to William Faulkner's tradition of detective fiction including Intruder in the Dust (1948).

Practically any novel involving Louisiana political figures requires comparison to Robert Perm Warren's All the King's Men (1946), but in this case the similarities between the two works are numerous and manifest. Governor Belmont Pugh shares not only Willie Stark's overindulgence in women and alcohol, but also his histrionic public speaking style, his rather ersatz iconoclastic appeal to the working class man, his career as a door-to-door salesman, and his lost innocence and idealism. Moreover, a number of scholars have observed Warren's interest in, and his use of, the same types of hardboiled technique of which Burke demonstrates his mastery in this novel.

Certainly, Purple Cane Road most obviously follows some of the conventions of such seminal hardboiled crime stories as Dashiell Hammett's The...

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Related Titles

The series that James Lee Burke began in 1987 with The Neon Rain has become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed detective series of the last decade. In the first novel, Robicheaux leaves the New Orleans Police Department for what he imagines to be the relative quiet of his hometown of New Iberia. Robicheaux marries Annie, a social worker he meets in the first novel, and they adopt Alafair in Heaven's Prisoners (1988). Burke carries on the doubling theme in this novel when Robicheaux acknowledges his similarities to the boyhood-friend-turned-criminal, Bubba Rocque. Black Cherry Blues (1989) furthers Robicheaux's inquiry into the past and its consequences for the present, and returns Cletus Purcel to...

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Adaptations

In 2000, Simon & Schuster Audio released an abridged audio book version of Purple Cane Road read by Will Patton.

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