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Ash Wednesday, Jolie Blon's Bounce

The novel's first pages are filled with overblown emotion and lots of sex. In the Nova, mostly. But for all my stubbornly held expectations, Jimmy and Christie turn out to be interesting, if not profound, personalities. The change begins in a scene in which the 29-year-old Jimmy challenges a teenager to a furious match on a wintry basketball court. Christie watches from the car, fighting her own battle with the cigarette in her hand and wincing as she hears her hot-tempered husband-to-be cursing a 12-year-old.

In those few minutes of sweat and anxiety, both young people start to turn from children to adults themselves. Jimmy wins but returns the $100 the teenager bet him. Christie throws the cigarette out of the window. From then on, the story takes on new momentum.

Hawke has a sharp eye for detail that enlivens the many landscapes of the novel, from Albany to New Orleans. However, to move the plot along he relies heavily on odd characters who pop up when needed: a blind man on the Greyhound bus, an escaped convict, an old, tough-talking priest. The role of these characters is to spontaneously expound on life, prompting Jimmy and Christie, in turn, to do a little soul-searching.

In the end, "Ash Wednesday" is a stirring story when read quickly. If you stop to think hard about what is said, much of the dialogue sounds artificial. If you immerse yourself in the tale, the story roars along like a, well, like a souped-up Chevy Nova. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Murder in the Bayou

In "Jolie Blon's Bounce" (Simon & Schuster, $25), author James Lee Burke takes his fans back to his hometown of New Iberia for another murder mystery richly redolent with the unique culture of the Louisiana bayou country.

In the tradition of his previous bestsellers, such as "Purple Cane Road" and "Dixie City Jam," Burke again summons up his most popular character, police detective Dave Robicheaux, to explore the darkest aspects of evil, as well as racism, religious obsession and sexual perversity.

The novel opens in the aftermath of the rape and murder of a 16-year-old high school honor student, who has been shot to death. Her boyfriend tells Robicheaux that he and his girlfriend were attacked. Robicheaux doesn't think the story holds water. When a second murder victim turns up, this one a time-worn hooker, Robicheaux thinks the two are connected, but he has a difficult time making one and one add up.

As always, Burke introduces characters that seem to leap off the page as he slices through layer after layer of vice and violence to get to the heart of the tragedy. First he focuses on Tee Bobby Hulin, a penny-ante addict who has a magical way with Cajun rhythm and blues, his best loved tune being a number called "Jolie Blon's Bounce." But the story works its way far deeper into the fabric of New Iberia before Burke finishes the telling.

"Jolie Blon's Bounce" is not Burke's best work. By the standards he's set in previous novels, it may even be the weakest yet - the plot is overly complex, the characters are one-dimensional and the turns in the tale seem to be designed purely to demonstrate Burke's ability to probe deeply into Robicheaux's psyche. But Burke's fans will nonetheless find it absorbing, and, truth to tell, a weak story by Burke is far better than the best most authors in his genre can turn out. — Don Dale

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