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Cadillac Jukebox, The

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					“Cadillac Jukebox” (1996) was the ninth novel published by American author James Lee
Burke in his New York Times bestselling 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.

Aaron Crown has spent decades in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, sentenced for
the murder of the state’s most famous black civil rights leader. Nobody’s too bent out of
shape about that: Crown’s family were emigrants from the northern part of the state,
shiftless timber people, possibly members of the Ku Klux Klan. Then Crown starts
protesting his innocence to Robicheaux, now a detective with the New Iberia Sheriff’s
office, and Robicheaux starts worrying that the filthy, smelly, uneducated redneck has
perhaps been scapegoated for the greater society’s sins. But as Robicheaux takes an
interest in Crown, strange things start happening. Buford LaRose, scion of a wealthy old
Southern family, an academic running -- successfully – for governor, and author of the
book that sent Crown to prison, begins taking an interest in Robicheaux; he offers him the
job of head of the state police. Buford’s beautiful, hot-to-trot wife Karyn, a former flame
of Robicheaux’s, also is suddenly paying a lot of attention to the detective. Documentary
filmmakers trying to prove Crown’s innocence are murdered. And New Orleans
wiseguys start coming out of the woodwork. Of course, Clete Purcel is around to help,
his former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, an overweight, heavy-
drinking, brawling, heavily-scarred survivor of the city’s tough Irish Channel
neighborhood. So is a female cop, Helen Soileau, whom, like Purcell, we will continue
to see a lot of in later books in the series.

Dave 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. In addition to working
for the sheriff, he still owns and operates a boat rental and bait business, while living in
the house in which he was actually born. He is assisted in the operation of his business
by a black man, Batist, whom we’ve met before, and will see again. Robicheaux is, by
this point, on his third wife, Bootsie. His quietly, illegally adopted daughter, an ethnic
Hispanic, whom he’s named Alafair, apparently the better to confuse his readers, as
Burke’s real life daughter, Alafair Burke, is also writing mysteries these days, has
morphed into a fairly ordinary American teenager, and she’s got her pet, the three-legged
raccoon Tripod, whom we’ve met before and will meet again.

Burke is still writing with energy, passion and power. He’s still giving us the odd
grotesque character, a sure hallmark of Southern fiction. However, there’s little
discussion of Robicheaux’s father and mother by now, no World War II German sub in
the Gulf, and the detective’s half-brother Jimmie, who associated with gangsters, is
mentioned only briefly, in one sentence, as having been ordered shot by a New Orleans
gangster. But people who’ve known the detective long time still call him by the
nickname “Streak,” for a supposed skunk white streak in his black hair – that Jimmie also
had-- that’s meant to reflect childhood malnutrion. Some of Burke’s characters are now
beginning to resemble each other in the many Robicheaux books: the New Orleans
gangster Robicheaux has known since childhood. The handsome, arrogant, ruthless rich
man of good family who doesn’t care whom he hurts in acquiring his great wealth. The
beautiful hot-to-trot wife of the rich man, with whom Robicheaux has a romantic history.
The dangerous Southerner. The hit man from Brooklyn. Burke tells us that, as both the
New Orleans and Brooklyn accents grow out of the Irish accent, the accents of these two
cities resemble each other. And the outcomes some of these characters meet are also
beginning to resemble each other. Obviously, at this point, eight books into the
successful Robicheaux series, Burke is beginning to allow his work to reflect his inner
needs, as best-selling writers often do.

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 more recent JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE, and PURPLE CANE
ROAD have been New York Times bestsellers. "Cadillac Jukebox" has its moments, but
many readers may find it deja vu all over again.

				
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