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A Haunting Series Entry From James Lee Burke

August 27, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The last few entries in James Lee Burke's series about Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux seemed to suggest that the author had pumped all he could out of that patch of ground. Plot threads were being repeated. His hero had become unbearably sanctimonious. His previously eloquent descriptions of the bayous were drifting into self-parody (". . . the sun should have risen out of the water like a mist-shrouded egg yolk, but it didn't"). Burke had even moved on to more fertile fields in Texas for an engaging new series.

But like a wildcatter sensing the well has not played out, he has returned to southern Louisiana to dig a little deeper. And his instincts have not failed him or his readers. "Purple Cane Road" (Doubleday, $24.95, 341 pages), the 11th Robicheaux, is arguably his richest yield.

It begins with a door opening to Robicheaux's past--information about the mother who deserted him when he was just an adolescent. A wily pimp tells him that she became a prostitute and was killed by crooked cops. The pimp is murdered before he can provide specifics, but Robicheaux is fully motivated to find out the truth about his mom.

This is just one of a series of labors that Burke puts him through--nearly all of them involving women. There's Letty Labiche, awaiting execution for the murder of a man who molested her and her twin sister, Passion, when they were children. Robicheaux is trying to stay the execution, but the twins spurn his help. So does Little Face Dautrieve, a prostitute being stalked by a Mensa-level IQ psychopath named Johnny Remeta.

On the home front, Robicheaux discovers that his wife, Bootsie (a name that takes some getting used to), once had an affair with a smarmy politician who may be one of his mother's killers. All this while his daughter Alafair, in a fit of teenage pique, refuses to believe his warning that the new love of her life, the aforementioned Remeta, is a homicidal maniac.

So many subplots, and yet Burke interweaves them with a steady hand. Enriched by truly poetic descriptions of Louisiana in all its rural beauty and urban decadence, this remarkable novel proceeds at a perfect pace to a thoroughly satisfying finale that brings tears to the eyes.

*

A Louisiana of an earlier day--March 1939 to be exact--is the backdrop for Robert Skinner's action-packed, hard-boiled tale "Blood to Drink" (Poisoned Pen Press, $23.95, 251 pages), the fourth novel in a series featuring Creole smuggler-turned-nightclub owner Wesley Farrell. The main location here is a vividly re-created New Orleans, though Skinner sends his colorful characters along various highways and byways of the Pelican State.

An off-duty treasury agent named James Schofield is seeking the men who murdered his older brother. Farrell had been with the brother, a ranking Coast Guard officer, when the crime occurred. His guilt button pressed by the T-man, he embarks on his own investigation. Meanwhile, New Orleans Police Capt. Frank Casey (Farrell's recently discovered father) and Daggett and Adams, two plainclothes members of the Negro Detective Squad, are looking for the shooter who just killed an undercover policeman. It soon appears that the same weapon was used in both murders.

Skinner keeps the well-plotted story moving smartly by shifting from one set of characters to another, including chilling sequences in which the hunters' quarry, a monstrous, machete-wielding psycho cynically misnamed Mercy, dispatches both foe and friend with pitiless glee. It's inevitable that Farrell be the one to finally confront the homicidal giant, and the author's dramatic description of the ensuing knife fight in the midst of a near hurricane is nothing you want to read just before going to bed.

There's more to the mystery than Mercy; he's only a hired hand. Skinner, who doesn't skimp on the period touches, is just as generous with his surprising revelations. You won't be bored.

*

"In 1986, led by Sara Paretsky, a group of women writers formed Sisters in Crime to celebrate the work of women in the mystery field and educate the public and the reviewers about their accomplishments." So explains Cynthia Lawrence in the introduction to "A Deadly Dozen: Tales of Murder from Members of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles" (Uglytown, $13, 224 pages), an eye-catching trade paperback collection she edited with Susan B. Casmier and Aljean Harmetz.

Far be it from me to spoil the dozen ingeniously implanted surprises with ingenuous descriptions. Let it suffice to say that the book's protagonists range from sports figures--triathlon sleuth, racer, wrestler (by, respectively, authors Kris Neri, Jamie Wallace and Nathan Walpow--yes, there are "brothers" in "Sisters") to student librarians (a clever tale by Dr. Gay Toltl Kinman) to professional investigators (Dorothy Rellas, Kate Thornton) to unhappy housewives (Cory Newman, Joan Meyers). One title, "The Cats and Jammer," by Gayle McGary, should be reason enough for punsters to purchase the book, even if the story didn't wittily reference the work of crime fiction's most popular sister.

*

The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O' Gorman on audio books.

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