In New Iberia, Louisiana, memories are long and dangerous, and the past and present are seldom easy to untangle. Homicide investigator Dave Robicheaux is trying to help Letty Labiche, a New Iberia girl on death row for killing the man who molested her and her sister as children, when chance brings him to Zipper Clum, a pimp and pornographer who recognizes Robicheaux secondhand through a 30-year haze:
"Robicheaux, your mama's name was Mae.... Wait, it was Guillory before she married. That was the name she went by ... Mae Guillory. But she was your mama," he said. To Robicheaux, whose memories of the fun-loving Mae are few and bittersweet, the news comes like a bolt of lightning. Though she abandoned him to the uncertain mercies of a violent, alcoholic father, he loved her, and his desire to find her killers--cops in the pay of the Giacano crime family, according to Clum--is instantaneous and deeply felt. Unfortunately, Zipper Clum meets the wrong end of a .25 automatic soon after his electrifying announcement, but his conversation with his killer is recorded--and Mae Guillory's name comes up again.
"What?" I said.
He wet his lips uncertainly.
"She dealt cards and still hooked a little bit. Behind a club in Lafourche Parish. This was maybe 1966 or '67," he said.
Clete's eyes were fixed on my face. "You're in a dangerous area, sperm breath," he said to Zipper.
"They held her down in a mud puddle. They drowned her," Zipper said.
The winding trail of evidence connected to both Letty Labiche and Mae Guillory leads Robicheaux almost immediately to Jim Gable, the New Orleans Police Department's liaison with city hall, whose position has afforded him a number of less-than-legal advantages. Gable also happens to be an ex-lover of Robicheaux's wife, Bootsie--formerly the widow of Ralph Giacano. From there the web of connections grows ever wider, and (not surprisingly) incriminates those in high places. These include the state attorney general, a woman who, if photographic evidence is to be trusted, was once friendly with the Labiches' parents, who were known procurers.
But if Purple Cane Road has its share of corrupt powermongers, it's also filled with beautifully rounded characters, like piano-playing governor Belmont Pugh and hit man Johnny Remeta, whose personality slowly begins to unravel as he gets closer to Robicheaux's daughter. The plot converges seamlessly to its climax--the true story of what happened to Mae Robicheaux--as James Lee Burke's trademark of uncompromising justice is brought to fruition. Like Burke's other Robicheaux novels, Purple Cane Road offers a solidly satisfying piece in the picture of a complex hero. --Barrie Trinkle