Book Review | Dixie City Jam by James Lee Burke
Dixie City Jam by James Lee Burke
Say you’re an injured Vietnam vet, a 40-something disgraced New Orleans PD cop now assigned to detective duty in a bayou parish sheriff’s office. Your first wife is dead; your second is afflicted with lupus. You’re controlling your drink devils with AA meetings and your anger management skills have improved, you own a nice little bait shop on the bayou behind your house, you’re considered a stand-up cop who obeys the rule book, but sometimes a red-black rage behind your eyes impels you into outbursts of uncontrollable violence. Now a huge blond stranger is threatening you and terrorizing your wife. Neither you nor the other authorities can grab this guy, as he disappears like smoke when confronted, seemingly into the ether. Is he the vigilante the locals fear so much? The itinerant preacher who travels your road insists the blond man is a demon, part of an advancing evil apocalypse. What would you think? What would you do?
In Dixie City Jam, the seventh novel in the Robicheaux series, James Lee Burke’s protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, is this cop, and his pursuit of the blond evil-doer makes for a hair-raising ride for us readers. Robicheaux is the undisputed good guy we can cheer for at every step, and we do. Meanwhile, we get a good look at the thought processes and actions used by this detective to identify and hunt down criminals, and we share Robicheaux’s frustration that the time-honored methods don’t necessarily apply to this perp. We understand the pressure he feels to bring this guy down as he watches his wife sink further into her own despair. Along the way we are entertained by the hi-jinx of some of Dave’s associates, treated to evocative descriptions of the Louisiana bayou country, horrified by acts of unbelievable cruelty, and led through the occasional discourse on the state of New Orleans race relations x-many years after the end of the Civil War. Throw in a sunken World War II submarine, a pair of rather brainless Mafiosi, recidivists and drug-running low-lifes, a courageous female detective who’s also a single mom from the projects, a bribable NOPD superior, a PI pal with a tendency to joy-ride on heavy construction equipment, a sweet and helpful nun, many more unique friends, enemies, and family, and some very noteworthy fight scenes, and you’ve got one corker of a story.
But Dixie City Jam is more than a rock-em, sock-em, squad car-rollin detective yarn. Burke’s prose often is startling in its shifts between street-level language and poetic eloquence. Burke’s ear for dialect and gutter-speak is unerring, but his voice is that of a male choir in perfect harmony. His descriptive passages caress the Louisiana countryside with affection and admiration but without poignancy. The thoughts he has Robicheaux express in his first-person narration often instruct and enlighten without being didactic in the least. He addresses the issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural heritage nearly head-on, and through Robicheaux’s ruminations and the characters actions he reveals the multiple points of view, all valid and all flawed, which in their provincial narrowness continue to propagate tensions and hatred between peoples. He very gently takes a political stand, between the lines, which suggests that ultimately the problems we humans have are no one’s fault but stem from an evil born of fear carried to some degree by each of us, preferably controlled successfully but often allowed to further damage the self and others.
Action is the foundation of Burke’s novel, but the book is hardly one long car chase. He builds his through characterization as well, and to a lesser extent through place. Robicheaux is multi-dimensional to an extent rarely seen in detective fiction, his virtues and faults fully developed, his thoughts and opinions crystal-clear to the reader. The other male characters are nicely fluffed out, too, and we come to understand their personalities and motivations quite well through both dialogue and actions. The female characters are less well defined, even Bootsie, Dave’s wife, who has a central role in the story. That the women in the book are left a little vague is not necessarily a bad thing: male writers who try to get inside the female psyche and get it WRONG do a terrible disservice to their readers, who may become distracted and annoyed when they are forced to conclude She;d never do that! Burke’s women may be a little flat, but they fit the story and don’t detract from its cohesion and that’s all to the good. And the Louisiana bayou setting is used effectively, not so much to suggest a mood (although it does that) but as a metaphor for the changing, challenging events in Robicheaux’s life: the sky over his neighbor’s sugar cane field is a volatile continuous presence; the marshes and reeds have insulated him from many unfriendly forces but now provide camouflage for an invisible danger and are as timeless as the disputant nature of human beings.
Caveats? Yes, a couple. This is a rather macho book about macho heroes, and the graphic descriptions of violent acts, as well as the images created by some of the language, can be quite disturbing. A reader who is sensitive to or turned off by explicit violence in novels probably should take a pass there are lots of other books. Additionally, there is some redundancy whose value to the plot is somewhat suspect: the bad guy foils the good guys so often that a reader might begin to think Not again! Haven’t you people caught on to this psycho yet? a minor annoyance in an otherwise tightly written tale then again, there are some compensatory surprises in the realm of who is and who isn’t one of the good guys.
This book is not a particularly fast read, as it contains many subplots, a complicated protagonist, lots of brief descriptive passages, and some very thoughtful internal monologue. It’s part of a series but easily stands alone there’s no need to read the Robicheaux books in order. It was written with great appreciation of and love for the English language. Its grammar and usage are impeccable (Thank you, Mr. Burke!!). In short, if you’re looking to pick up a conventionally churned out paperback novel that you can run through during a short flight, don’t pick this one. But if you like a detective story with lively fleshed-out characters, fresh action, and lots of meat on its bones, don’t overlook James Lee Burke. He’s the real deal.
This review reflects the tastes, perceptions, and opinions of one person only and may be entirely wrong from another person’s point of view. Please read the book yourself and decide.
*I received a copy of this book to review but I was not financially compensated in any way. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this novel.*