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Last Car to Elysian Fields, The

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					―Last Car to Elysian Fields‖ (1994) was apparently the thirteenth novel published by
American author James Lee Burke in his mighty New York Times bestselling detective
Dave Robicheaux series. Like the earlier books of the series, and most of the series’
works to follow, the book, a Southern noir, police procedural/mystery, is set in and
around New Orleans, Louisiana, more or less home country for Burke, who was born in
Houston, Texas, in 1936, and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast.

 Robicheaux hears that an old friend, Father Jimmie Dolan, a controversial Catholic
priest, has been assaulted in a particularly brutal manner: this draws the detective back to
New Orleans. He also starts investigating the decades-old disappearance of Junior
Crudup, noted black blues player, who apparently never made it alive out of Angola,
Lousiana’s notorious, brutal state prison. Needless to say, he’s going to step on some
toes in opening this long-ignored mystery. Then, back in New Iberia, three local
teenaged girls are killed in a drunken driving accident; the driver is the seventeen year
old daughter of a prominent local doctor. And the girls had just been illegally served
liquor by one of the state’s many ―daiquiri windows,‖ places that serve mixed drinks
from drive-by windows. The operator of the window is brutally murdered; Robicheaux
suspects the driver’s father, the doctor. And Robicheaux takes up, with Father Jimmie,
the cause of a nearby poverty-stricken black community being slowly poisoned by a toxic
landfill.

 Robicheaux is still employed by the Sheriff’s Office of New Iberia, Louisiana, a smaller
quieter town near New Orleans. Helen Soileau, a former partner whom we have met
before and will meet again, is now sheriff. The house in which Robicheaux was born,
and used to live, has been burnt down as a result of careless electrical work by a mob-
connected electrical subcontractor, and the detective is living in rental housing. He has
sold his boat rental and bait business to Batist, the black man who worked there with him,
whom we have met many times before and will again. The three-legged raccoon, Tripod,
pet of the detective’s adopted daughter Alafair, who is studying at Reed College, Oregon,
has been given to Batist. Bootsie, the third wife of Robicheaux, died a year ago, of lupus.
So Robicheaux is living alone, at least until he takes in a stray cat, and calls it Snuggs.

Of course, this being a book by Burke, New Orleans wise guys soon start coming out of
the woodwork for reasons of their own: we have here Fat Sammy Figorelli and his
assorted employees. And, to be sure, Clete Purcell, Robicheaux’s former partner on the
New Orleans Police Department, an overweight, heavy-drinking, brawling, heavily-
scarred survivor of the city’s tough Irish Channel neighborhood, as are the gangsters, is
around to help the detective. We’ll also meet Jumpin’ Merchie Flannigan, a New
Orleans-bred semi-underworld player, whom Robicheaux has known since childhood: a
frequent attribute of Burke’s mobsters; Theodosha Flannigan, Merchie’s hot-to-trot
beautiful wife, with whom the detective had a relationship in the past, another frequent
attribute of bad guys’ wives in Burke’s work; and Castille LeJeune, Theodosha’s father, a
wealthy and powerful local blue blood, ruthless and greedy, who doesn’t care whom he
hurts – also frequent attributes of Burke’s similarly situated rich men. And then there’s
Max Coll, the odd-looking, psychotic Celtic killing machine, arrived from Ireland to
execute a hit on somebody; and, to be sure, Max strongly resembles many of Burke’s
hitmen/ bad guys. And Burke continues to give us the odd grotesque character, a sure
hallmark of Southern literature.

Robicheaux is of Cajun ancestry, and is still reliving the nightmare of his service in
Vietnam. He has a drinking problem, and a tendency to violence that is exaggerated by
his friend and alter-ego Purcel. The book is also shot through with discussion of New
Orleans’ music: the 1951 prominence of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell; Sam Philips’
Memphis Sun Studios, where Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis got their
starts. Jimmie Clanton’s ―Just a Dream‖ the most popular song on the jukebox in
Robicheaux’s salad years. And the locally- beloved Fat Man, Fats Domino.

Well, you can see, there’s a lot of familiar material in this series’ entry; and the plot,
while it hums along and introduces quite a few characters, is a little thin—for Burke.
You’d have to consider ―Last Car‖ one of the weaker entries in the series. Still, Burke
continues to write with noticeable energy, passion and power. More than anything else,
seems to me, in Burke’s work, we’ll enjoy some of the most beautiful, knowledgeable
writing ever committed to paper about the flora, fauna, geography, and human occupants
of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, now so much in the news. Burke attended
Southwestern Louisiana Institute; later received B. A. and M. A. degrees from the
University of Missouri in 1958 and 1960 respectively. Over the years he worked as a
landman for Sinclair Oil Company, a pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter,
college English professor, social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles, clerk for the
Louisiana Employment Service, and instructor in the U. S. Job Corps. His work has twice
been awarded an Edgar for Best Crime Novel of the Year. At least eight of his novels,
including the recent JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE, and PURPLE CANE ROAD have been
New York Times bestsellers. This isn’t the place to start reading Burke; but it’s
worthwhile if you’re following the series.
s.

				
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