Review

Purple Cane Road

by James Lee Burke



Once in awhile a novel --- a genre novel --- will, by the force of
its own impetus, break loose of its classification and like a
tornado spawned by the collision of unstable air masses shatter and
change, perhaps irrevocably, all that it may encounter. The effect
of its passing may be immediate or it may not manifest itself for
several years. No matter; it will, at some point, be
noted.  

James Lee Burke has been slowly and quietly but surely honing his
craft for well over 20 years now. Throughout that time his
reputation has grown, initially among academians and scholars, and
then outward, concentrically, among critics and the public. The
overwhelming body of his work concerns Dave Robicheaux, a Louisiana
law enforcement officer who is a modern Everyman, a dangerously
flawed individual who strives to do good in a world that
encourages, indeed rewards, the opposite. While the Robicheaux
books are ostensibly and, at first blush, correctly, considered to
belong to the "mystery" genre, they in fact paint a topographical
picture of the people, scenery, and sociology of southern Louisiana
with a richness of language and topic comparable with the similar
topical work of Faulkner and the early novels of Cormac
McCarthy.

It is with PURPLE CANE ROAD that Burke, and Robicheaux, will burst
out of for all time the limitation of genre and receive the
recognition and classification of "literature" that this, and any
number of Burke's other novels, richly deserve. One of many common
threads running through the previous Robicheaux novels is the
question of what happened to Robicheaux's mother, who left young
Dave and his hard-drinking, rough-edged father for a sharp-eyed
card player. The answer to this question, and to many, many others,
is found in PURPLE CANE ROAD. It is not necessary to read the
previous Robicheaux novels in order to understand, and appreciate,
the unraveling of the web of death and deceit presented here;
Burke, in his ability to acquaint new readers with the Robicheaux
mythos while keeping old readers on board is quite simply without
peer.  

PURPLE CANE ROAD opens with Robicheaux attempting to help a death
row inmate whose execution is imminent. His efforts in this regard
lead him into the cellar of not only his own past, but also that of
crooked police officers, psychotic hit men, and his own family.
Burke, in relating this story, shows his readers a side of New
Orleans not revealed in the tourist brochures --- the inhabitants
who dwell in dark places, who live on the periphery of the rest of
us, those whom we permit our vision to slide over, rather than
focus on, as if some subconscious instinct for self-preservation
prevents us from becoming what we would otherwise behold.
Simultaneously captivating and repelling, the people and events of
PURPLE CANE ROAD are, quite simply,
unforgettable.  

The complexity of the characters, the incredible richness of
description and language, and the pristine canvas upon which Burke
tells his tale render PURPLE CANE ROAD one of the most impressive
novels I have encountered in my five decades on the planet. It is
absolutely not to be missed. Highest possible recommendation.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Purple Cane Road
by James Lee Burke

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Dell
  • ISBN-10: 0440224047
  • ISBN-13: 9780440224044