James lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels are guaranteed to produce a cast of eccentric characters, many of whom thrive on the criminal underbelly of New Orleans and New Iberia Parrish. Last Car to Elysian Fields is no exception. Robicheaux is in the middle, as usual, tracking down the killer of a man who ran a drive-through daiquiri bar, an outraged father whose daughter died in a fiery car crash and the lost trail of a musician-convict, Junior Crudup, a friend of Leadbelly. Crudup’s music disappeared with him, somewhere inside the infamous Angola Prison Camps.
At loose ends since the death of his wife, Robicheaux is haunted by the past, happier with his memories than the problems he faces as an officer of the law in New Iberia Parrish. Yet his old sidekick, bail bondsman Clete Purcell, refuses to give up on Robicheaux, although Clete worries that Dave’s suppressed emotions will emerge at an inappropriate time. Of course Clete is right, and Robicheaux loses his perspective. Now sober, he understands how misplaced anger can cause a return to the bottle. But one of the reasons Robicheaux is such a popular character is that he is a smart-talking, generally easy-going, regular guy who never takes himself too seriously. He’s just a little off since his wife died, fighting for a reasonable state of mind.
Burke does some fine writing in this novel, especially when he delves into the history of Angola’s prison camps, the horrible conditions there and lack of respect for the humanity of the inmates. He carefully dissects a prison system that uses free labor and demeans the convicts, making their lives barely tolerable. Junior Crudup is lost somewhere in the morass of the Angola Prison Camp, working a job for Castille LeJeune, father of one of Dave’s old flames. LeJeune is a member of the entitled aristocracy who rubs Robicheaux the wrong way by his very nature, a man whose motives are suspect under any conditions.
There is also a hit man running around New Iberia: Max Boot is hired to take care of a busybody priest, but instead goes after random thugs looking to earn the bounty offered for the Boot’s death. This guy is a wild card, typical of Burke, who darts in and out of the plot when least expected.
In short, this is a typical Dave Robicheaux novel, where Burke exercises his writing skills, tossing people and plot in a heady mix. The sense of place is original and endearing, familiar thanks to Robicheaux, a character who keeps the reader wanting more. Viewed in another light, this novel is unlike the others in that Robicheaux goes to emotional extremes that surpass his previous struggles. Perhaps Dave Robicheaux is about to embark on a new phase of his life, once he has accepted and released his personal sorrows and the weight of the world.