Evil lurks in Louisiana

August 14, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

"Dixie City Jam" is the seventh crime novel by James Lee Burke, and it appears that, by its early position on the best-seller lists, that he is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Mr. Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels have been among the best in American crime fiction of the past decade, and while fans have been touting this series from the opening book, "Neon Rain," commercial success has come more slowly. "Dixie City Jam," one of the strongest books in the series, may just put him over the top.

Robicheaux is a former New Orleans homicide detective, a recovering alcoholic, who now operates as a sheriff's deputy in New Iberia, La., and also runs a fishing camp there. He has fought demons all his life -- a troubled childhood, Vietnam,

alcoholism -- and though he has moved to the country in an attempt to find peace, violence seems to follow him.

He acknowledges that it attracts him "in the same way that some people are fascinated by the protean shape and texture of fire to the extent that they need to slide their hands through its caress." This time, he does battle with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the New Orleans Mob -- and, always, with himself.

Mr. Burke was a writer of literary fiction before turning to the crime novel, and one can detect his heritage in the marvelously descriptive passages of South Louisiana and in his continual turning to such literary themes as redemption and evil.

Both of the latter are at play in "Dixie City Jam," and the mix is helped enormously by the re-entry of Clete Purcel, his old homicide department sidekick who is now a private investigator in New Orleans. Clete was an active player in earlier Robicheaux novels but nearly absent in the last two, and he is an effective counterpoint to Dave. Where Dave worries about his violent streak and the question of whether one must fight evil with evil, Clete has no such concerns. He is a violent and often nasty sort whose very modest code shades him over toward the good guys, but just barely.

Mr. Burke's villains generally are grotesquely drawn, not just bad but evil in an almost exaggerated, Gothic way. In "Dixie City Jam," Will Buchwalter is a neo-Nazi, brilliant and sadistic, but he also happens to love some of the culture of the very people he professes to despite.

It's that sort of touch that sets apart James Lee Burke from all but a few in crime fiction. "Dixie City Jam" has several such brilliant nuances, and it seldom disappoints.

Title: "Dixie City Jam"

Author: James Lee Burke

Publisher: Hyperion

0$ Length, price: 367 pages, $22.95

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