Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues. James Lee Burke. Harper Mystery paperback. ©1989. $10.

In the joint, guys in lock-up can get about anything. Make about anything, given enough time, persistence, someone willing to break laws associated with bringing contraband into a jail, and a lazy guard or two. No stretch of the imagination here, right? We should all have some knowledge of the woman who helped the murderers escape in upstate New York. Or, the Baltimore city jail where the inmates were know to be running the joint, even so much so at least four guards had become pregnant by inmates. Guards.

One of the ways a novelist murders a good story is by getting details wrong. Guns are frequently messed up, cartridges ejecting from a revolver, for instance. If that happens, someone better also be losing a hand or a bunch of fingers.

Black Cherry Blues gets its name from the hangover an inmate gets after drinking some home-grown cocktails made from contraband wine brought in by a sympathetic delivery man, and added to syrup, water, and rubbing alcohol easily swiped from a jail kitchen. “It’ll fix you up just like you stuck your head in a blast furnace,” Dixie Lee claimed. Don’t drink rubbing alcohol, by the way.

In the 3rd Dave Robicheaux novel, Dave has created a real mess for himself. Living on his own, making a meager living from his boat and bait shop, and haunted by the murder of his wife by drug dealers, Dave’s life is once again turning to shambles after Dixie Lee Pugh, a former college buddy shows up. Dixie is a guitarist whose life hasn’t measured up much to his expectations. A real talent at an early age and popular among the roadhouse circuit, Dixie spent too much time in trouble. Now, he has himself tied-up with some oil land leases with a grease-ball mafioso wanna be, Sally Dio. Sally Dio fronts the money and Dixie fixes up the land deals. Sally Dio also fixes anyone who gets in his way, like the two guys in Montana who snooped too deep and got themselves whacked and buried beside a cool mountain stream near the Bitterroot Mountains. Something Dixie knows too much about.

With something of a conscious remaining after years of hard living, Dixie confides in Dave he literally knows where the bodies are hiding. On top of that potential mess, two guys working for a local oil company know Dixie knows where the bodies are. When the two oil company reps, Mapes and Vidrine, tell Dave to mind his own business, he visits the offices of Star Drilling Company and communicates the office manager in very straightforward terms to put his dogs back on their leash.

Events soon take a nasty turn when Dave gets a package in the mail. The package contains a dirty needle and a schedule of Alafair’s day. The threat against Dave’s 6-year old adopted daughter is as clear as morning dew on honeysuckle, or the intent of an alligator on a hapless nutria. Figuring out where Mapes and Vidrine are working from, Dave pays them a visit. And things go worse than sideways when Dave ends up unconscious and one of the oil men is gutted like a carp.

Out on bail, Dave decides the only way to clear his name is to work out the details with the money behind Star Drilling, Sally Dio. Taking Alafair out of school and turning the bait shop over to Batist, and his house to Clarise, Dave and Alafair head to Missoula, Montana to set their lives right again.

You’re in a world that caters to people of the Atchafalaya Basin-Cajuns, redbones, roust-abouts, pipeliners, rednecks whose shrinking piece of American geography is identified only by a battered pickup, a tape deck playing Waylon, and a twelve-pack of Jax.

Selected locations from Black Cherry Blues:

#1  [Page 3] I wonder what happen here. The real-world geography doesn’t appear to match the book. “To the east you can see the lighted girders of the Earl K. Long Bridge, plumes of smoke rising from the oil refineries…” Perhaps more than one Earl K. Long Bridge exists; I sort of doubt that, though. The Earl K. Long Bridge is over the Calcasieau River, near Lake Charles, Louisiana, a good distance west of Baton Rouge. To be looking east to see the bridge one would almost be in Texas. Regardless of the what could be a geography error, the image is interesting in that we can see a Philips 66 refinery and the surrounding environment. Clearly, oil is an important part of Louisiana’s economy, yet also a clear environmental concern as these refineries exist in very sensitive ecosystems.

#2 [Page 123] This would be a wonderful place to sit outside, pondering, maybe a horse ride with a simply lunch, in late July or early August, I would think. I’m not a cold weather fan, and Polson, MT, just north of Missoula, seems like a great place to get away but I couldn’t live there, I don’t think. So very remote, isolated.

Polson MTThe image (left) helps us place ourselves. Kalispell and Evergreen, Montana to the north of Flathead Lake; Polson on the southern shore of the lake.

Dave visits the Flathead Reservation a couple of times to check out leads.

Several times, Dave drives back and forth between Polson and Missoula, checking with the FBI.

Alafair is placed in school in Polson. One of her teachers becomes a de facto guardian of her while Dave tries to avoid getting himself, or Clete, killed.

“The rural towns were full of Indians in work denims, curled-brim straw hats, heel-worn cowboy boots, and pickup trucks, and when I stopped for gas they looked through me as if I were made of smoky glass.” [123]

The Native American Reservations have rarely been treated with dignity and respect by Caucasians. James Lee Burke points out in his books at least once the injustices served upon the North American Native American populations.

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote that there was no worse fate for a people than to lose a war. If any of his readers wanted to disagree with him, they would only have to visit one of the places in which the United States government placed its original inhabitants. We took everything they had and in turn gave them smallpox, whiskey, welfare, federal boarding schools, and penitentiaries.” [168]

No argument there.

Readers of my posts know by now I hold James Lee Burke in high regard, for his novels and how he incorporates geography and history. Any writer looking for a model, looking for an author who exhibits the ability to introduce geography and history without pushing it at the reader in long-written exposition would do well to study Burke.

Burke is also a master at dialog. On page 89, Dave is working a bartender to get the details on what room in the motel Mapes and Vidrine are using for an office. Readers are tossed a few dialog hints to let us know who is speaking, to set the tone of the conversation. Then, four times does Burke use “I said” or “he said” in the conversation. The remaining parts of the conversation is simply dialog between Dave and the bartender. Some authors feel compelled, I think, to tell us who is speaking, even if only one person is present, or two. Those conversation can get visually weary after a while, of seeing, “he said,” “she said,” “he said.” Or, authors dig out the thesaurus, to convey some sort of specific attitude between the speakers. Sometimes, writers can convey a message without having to tell the reader, “See! These guys don’t like each other!” James Lee Burke does this exceptionally well, in my opinion, even in Black Cherry Blues, only the third book in the series, where one might still expect to find raw and unprincipled writing.

Reading JLB novels never seems to go wrong, never seems to get old, never seems to get bogged-down, like a propeller might trolling for frogs or catfish in Bayou Teche. PAX



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