Cadillac Jukebox

Elizabeth Pincus reviews James Lee Burke's crime novel "Cadillac Jukebox".

Published July 18, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

A prince of the non sequitur, crime novelist James Lee Burke weaves fragments of dialogue into a poetry of machismo, as if real standup guys can't be bothered with the mundane etiquette of conversation. The effect is one of lucid beauty, a staccato shorthand owing equal debt to Hemingway and Hammett. In "Cadillac Jukebox," Burke's quixotic detective Dave Robicheaux is hellbent on retribution, so caution is more expendable than usual. When his superior in the New Iberia Sheriff's Office orders him to Mexico to look up "a priest in some shithole down in the interior," Robicheaux asks, "We have money for this?" The reply: "Bring me a sombrero."

Offsetting such terse interaction is Burke's luxurious prose. Sending Robicheaux on a slow drive through that dead nowhere zone south of the border, Burke writes, "The sun rose higher in an empty cobalt sky. We crossed a flat plain with sloughs and reeds by the roadside and stone mountains razored against the horizon and Indian families who seemed to have walked enormous distances from no visible site in order to beg by the road. . . We passed an abandoned iron works dotted with broken windows, and went through villages where the streets were no more than crushed rock and the doors to all the houses were painted either green or blue."

Like his contemporary Walter Mosley, Burke is invigorating the crime fiction series at a time when many of the genre's heavy hitters -- Grafton, Parker -- have grown lazy and stale. "Cadillac Jukebox" is Burke's ninth outing with Robicheaux, a survivor of Vietnam, the bottle and more than a few personal tragedies. Here Robicheaux stumbles into a bloody mess involving mobbed-up denizens of the Louisiana bayou, the 30-year-old murder of a cherished civil rights leader, a long-ago betrayal of teenage love and an oily southern liberal with his eye on the governor's office. If Robicheaux's honor is sketched a tad too preciously, at least his interior life is of equal weight to the chaos raining around him. Robicheaux is a moral force as rugged as they come, even or especially when the proverbial quest for justice falls short of its goal.

By Elizabeth Pincus

Elizabeth Pincus is a film critic and the author of the Nell Fury detective novel series.

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