Friday, January 23, 2009

Last Car to Elysian Fields - James Lee Burke

Last Car to Elysian Fields is the thirteenth book in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series. In this installment, Dave is on his own. Alafair has gone off to school and his third wife, Bootsy has died. When his friend Father Jimmie Dolan is threatened because his actions are making the wrong people angry, Dave tries to throw some interference.

Dave also begins to look into the mysterious disappearance of a old blues singer, Junior Crudup, who went into Angola prison but never came out, nor did he die according to any prison records. And between these two story lines, Dave ends up face-to-face with an IRA assassin, kidnapped, and suspended.

Many series will be stale by book thirteen, but James Lee Burke somehow manages to keep Dave and Clete from ever becoming old or cliche. I listened to this book on audio read by Mark Hammer, and as I've mentioned before I do not think there is a better match of reader and book. Experiencing a Dave Robicheaux novel read by Mark Hammer is something every crime fiction fan should indulge in at some time, even if you're one of those people who believe you don't like listening to audio books. This is a purely magical experience. Hammer's gritty sound coupled with his seemingly natural ability to nail all the dialects is amazing in and of itself. But when you couple it with his interpretation of Burke's words and themes, the experience becomes heavenly. In this book alone, Hammer has the regular southern dialect of the main characters but he also seamlessly alternates to a thick Irish brogue and an Italian mobster accent. A "failure to communicate" is a common occurrence in Dave Robicheaux novels, as the reader will find through the repetition of the single word "what?" Through Hammer's voice, you can hear confusion from this word, you can hear frustration, you might hear anger. But that simple word is the best example of how Hammer interprets the novel, he NEVER just reads the novel.

Burke, of course, is well-known for his distinct talent at developing setting, the Louisiana bayou setting. But his characters are also exquisitely developed in each novel. One of the elements of his writing that keeps me coming back time after time is the uncanny way Burke evokes both loathing and sympathy from me for almost every character. He can create a revolting antagonist, but there will be some point in the book where I feel sorry for the poor sap. It never fails. And I end up asking myself, "why do you feel sorry for this guy?" And then my brain is in overdrive, and I devour books that ignite that process inside me. The books that make you look beyond the black and white and see all the gray that's really there. Dave Robicheaux, Burke's protagonist, is not always a likable character. And Burke challenges his readers to reach deep down inside and make a connection with this man. I think this particular book points that challenge out rather explicitly through the character of Castille LeJeune who repeatedly tells Dave that the meaning of his literal words is eluding LeJeune.

Clete Purcel is one of my favorite characters in crime fiction, but I don't think I'd ever want to know him in reality. I sure wouldn't want to get on his bad side. But what reader can resist Clete's witticisms? Or his undying devotion to Dave? And Helen Soileau's sarcasm is equally entertaining. These two characters do a lot to lighten the heaviness of Burke's tone.

James Lee Burke manages to do what few authors can, he manages to make me believe that each book I read is better than the one before it. That is an amazing accomplishment!


Joy January 23, 2009 at 7:28 PM  

Ohhhhh, I still haven't read the first one. :( Hopefully (like all the other books I want to read) - this year! :)

Corey Wilde January 24, 2009 at 8:48 AM  

Jen, this was the second JL Burke book I read -- listened to, actually. I am in complete agreement with you about Mark Hammer's reading of Burke's work. No other reader of any other work (including Patton's reading of Burke) comes close to matching Hammer's perfection.

I loved 'Last Car.' The scene where Dave is trapped in the bathroom with the assassin out in his bedroom is priceless. Burke has a wonderful talent for placing tiny beams of hilarity in the darkness of his stories.

And Clete is my hero. He drives me mad, as I'm sure he does Dave, but he does amazingly heroic things.

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