For Dave Robicheaux, there is no easy passage home. New Orleans, and the memories of his life in the Big Easy, will always haunt him. So to return there -- as he does in Last Car to Elysian Fields -- means visiting old ghosts, exposing old wounds, opening himself up to new, yet familiar, dangers.
When Robicheaux, now a police officer based in the somewhat quieter Louisiana town of New Iberia, learns that an old friend, Father Jimmie Dolan, a Catholic priest always at the center of controversy, has been the victim of a particularly brutal assault, he knows he has to return to New Orleans to investigate, if only unofficially. What he doesn't realize is that in doing so he is inviting into his life -- and into the lives of those around him -- an ancestral evil that could destroy them all.
The investigation begins innocently enough. Assisted by good friend and P.I. Clete Purcel, Robicheaux confronts the man they believe to be responsible for Dolan's beating, a drug dealer and porno star named Gunner Ardoin. The confrontation, however, turns into a standoff as Clete ends up in jail and Robicheaux receives an ominous warning to keep out of New Orleans' affairs.
Meanwhile, back in New Iberia, more trouble is brewing: Three local teenage girls are killed in a drunk-driving accident, the driver being the seventeen-year-old daughter of a prominent physician. Robicheaux traces the source of the liquor to one of New Iberia's "daiquiri windows," places that sell mixed drinks from drive-by windows. When the owner of the drive-through operation is brutally murdered, Robicheaux immediately suspects the grief-crazed father of the dead teen driver. But his assumption is challenged when the murder weapon turns up belonging to someone else.
The trouble continues when Father Jimmie asks Robicheaux to help investigate the presence of a toxic landfill near St. James Parish in New Orleans, which in turn leads to a search for the truth behind the disappearance many years before of a legendary blues musician and composer. Tying together all these seemingly disparate threads of crime is a maniacal killer named Max Coll, a brutal, brilliant, and deeply haunted hit man sent to New Orleans to finish the job on Father Dolan. Once Coll shows up, it becomes clear that Dave Robicheaux will be forced to ignore the warning to stay out of New Orleans, and he soon finds himself drawn deeper into a viper's nest of sordid secrets and escalating violence that sets him up for a confrontation that echoes down the lonely corridors of his own unresolved past.
A masterful exploration of the troubled side of human nature and the darkest corners of the heart, and filled with the kinds of unforgettable characters that are the hallmarks of his novels, Last Car to Elysian Fields is James Lee Burke in top form in the kind of lush, atmospheric thriller that his fans have come to expect from the master of crime fiction.
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Simon & Schuster
December 31, 2002
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Excerpt from Last Car to Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke
The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched the boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.
But in my heart the autumnal odor of gas on the wind, the gold and dark green of the trees, and the flame-lit edges of the leaves were less a sign of Indian summer than a prelude to winter rains and the short, gray days of December and January, when smoke would plume from stubble fires in the cane fields and the sun would be only a yellow vapor in the west.
Years ago, in both New Orleans and New Iberia, the tannic hint of winter and the amber cast of the shrinking days gave me the raison d'etre I needed to drink in any saloon that would allow me inside its doors. I was not one of those valiant, alcoholic souls who tries to drink with a self-imposed discipline and a modicum of dignity, either. I went at it full-bore, knocking back Beam or Black Jack straight-up in sawdust bars where I didn't have to make comparisons, with a long-necked Jax or Regal on the side that would take away the aftertaste and fill my mouth with golden needles. Each time I tilted the shotglass to my lips I saw in my mind's eye a simian figure feeding a fire inside a primeval cave and I felt no regret that I shared his enterprise.
Now I went to meetings and didn't drink anymore, but I had a way of putting myself inside bars, usually ones that took me back to the Louisiana in which I had grown up. One of my favorites of years past was Goldie Bierbaum's place on Magazine in New Orleans. A green colonnade extended over the sidewalk, and the rusted screen doors still had painted on them the vague images and lettering of Depression-era coffee and bread advertisements. The lighting was bad, the wood floor scrubbed colorless with bleach, the railed bar interspersed with jars of pickles and hard-boiled eggs above and cuspidors down below. And Goldie himself was a jewel out of the past, a seventy-year-old flat-chested ex-prizefighter who had fought Cleveland Williams and Eddie Machen.
It was night and raining hard on the colonnade and tin roof of
the building. I sat at the far end of the bar, away from the door, with
a demitasse of coffee and a saucer and tiny spoon in front of me. Through the front window I could see Clete Purcel parked in his lavender Cadillac convertible, a fedora shadowing his face in the glow of the streetlight. A man came in and removed his raincoat and sat down on the other end of the bar. He was young, built like a weight-lifter whose physique was earned rather than created with steroids. He wore his brown hair shaved on the sides, with curls hanging down the back of his neck. His eyebrows were half-moons, his face impish, cartoonlike, as though it were drawn with a charcoal pencil.