Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"The Tin Roof Blowdown" by James Lee Burke

One of the attractions of reading a book by James Lee Burke are the links to history which he provides. These, in turn make the story more real in the telling and inform the reader, giving his novels relevancy and keeping the reader thirsty for the next dot to connect. “The Tin Roof Blowdown”, released after Hurricane Katrina, while I was immersed in non-fiction, is a stunning tapestry, woven of history, timeless crime, human greed, government indifference to the people, and did I mention that it’s a great crime novel to boot?

With his usual cast of characters, including the loveable Clete Purcel, the introspective Dave Robicheaux, his daughter Alafair, and her pet raccoon, Mr. Burke takes on a tremendously complex disaster, creating at the same time, a compelling mystery. I should add that Mr. Burke resides in New Iberia Parish, next door to New Orleans. This undoubtedly gives the book a sense of realism impossible to capture in any other fashion.

Another aspect of Mr. Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series of novels is the continuity of the characters. What I mean is that as the reader gets older, so do his characters. This helps the reader identify with the characters and in some cases, where the reader’s life experiences may be similar with them, it can lend a stark reality to the book.

The storyline is simple enough. As Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans, several lives, seemingly unconnected on the surface, are about to collide amidst one of the largest natural disasters to ever hit the United States.

There is the Baylor family, still struggling to come to terms with the rape of their 15 year old daughter, Thelma, at the hands of street thugs. Otis Baylor is an insurance salesman. He is also a self styled vigilante, but is his mouth bigger than his actual abilities? With the storm closing in, and looters prowling without, we may learn the answer.

Then there is the Kovick household. Sydney and his wife Eunice are owners of a very successful flower shop. Sydney is involved in organized crime, but how deep do his ties run? When his house is broken into during the Evacuation, large sums of money are found by the vandals smashing his walls and tearing out his ceilings. Without the Police to call, how far will Sydney go to recover the money?

Then there are the Melancon brothers and their sidekick Andre. The two brothers are wanted on Federal Warrants, but all three may be the street thugs who raped Otis Baylor’s daughter. When one is crippled by sniper fire, and another killed, outside Mr. Baylor’s home, the Police are sure he did the crime. Or did he?

And lost in the story is the heroin addicted Priest, Jude Le Blanc. He goes missing in the height of the storm as he struggles to cut a hole in the roof of a church where people are trapped in the attic, about to drown. Both the Priest and the boat disappear and the people do drown. But who took the boat and how is it connected to the Baylor’s and Kovick’s lives?

When you pick up one of Mr. Burke’s books, he has written about 30, and won the Edgar Award twice, you are transported to the jungle that is the real world. His insights into the human condition and the individual psyche make his books both a lesson in our shortcomings as people, while at the same time telling a very compelling story.

You might say that Mr. Burke and I are both stuck in a rut; he keeps on writing great novels. And I keep on reading them, although sometimes several years after the fact.

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