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“The Tin Roof Blowdown” by James Lee Burke

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            James Lee Burke’s latest novel The Tin Roof Blowdown is the 16th entry in a series about Dave Robicheaux, chief detective in the sheriff’s department in New Iberia, La.  I discovered Burke in college, reading the first Robicheaux book, Neon Rain, on the recommendation of a friend and have read everything he has published since; while some books are better than others, there is not a dud in the bunch.  And I think that this newest one may be the best yet.

            This is a crime series of course, and each novel has a compelling mystery driving the plot.  However, there are many other pleasures in each book, especially for long-time readers.  Burke excels at descriptions of nature and place, and the environment of southern Louisiana provides plenty of material for him.  I have never been there, but after reading Burke for so long I can imagine the sights, smells, sounds, plant life, and wildlife with a clarity that makes me feel like I make annual visits.  Burke’s depiction of New Orleans is similarly powerful; he writes with a deep and abiding love for the city but manages to maintain a clear eye to its crime, brutality, and corruption.  The characters Burke creates are as varied and real as those of any other writer today, and with the exception of the occasional criminal psychotic, each is portrayed with sympathy and surprising psychological insight.

            Burke rewards long-time readers by never repeating himself, even with a recurring set of characters.  Dave, his colleagues, his friends, and his family all seem fresh in each book because Burke has allowed them to grow and change in a realistic fashion over time.  Unlike in many mystery series, where the characters seem stuck in a time warp that allows them to stay the same age, at the same place in life, and surrounded by the same people, the experiences of these characters stay with them, and nobody escapes the consequences of their actions.

            Each novel is narrated in the first-person by Robicheaux, and he often serves as Burke’s mouthpiece.  Never one to see the world in black and white, Robicheaux will bust criminals because he has to, but he also understands the environments that help to produce them.  Like his creator, he is a recovering alcoholic and strives at length to work the 12 steps and fend off a relapse.  Again like Burke, he is a devout Catholic struggling with his faith and searching desperately for things that affirm the existence of the God he wants to believe in while doing a job and dealing with people that could easily burn his faith down if he lets them.  Far from perfect but constantly trying, Robicheaux works hard at living up to his responsibilities as a cop, husband, father, and friend.

            Given that Burke is a resident of southern Louisiana, all of his fans expected him to write a Robicheaux story about the hurricanes that devastated southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in 2005, and The Tin Roof Blowdown is that book.  At the beginning of the novel, when the entire infrastructure of New Orleans falls apart, law enforcement and rescue personnel are called in from surrounding parishes to provide aid. Robicheaux goes along partly because it is his job but also partly to check up on his friends who still live in the city.  In the early chapters, as Robicheaux surveys the damage, we get some of the strongest (and most disturbing) writing of the entire series:

 “For those who do not like to brood upon the possibility of simian ancestry in the human gene pool or who genuinely believe that societal virtue grows from a collective impulse in the human breast, the events of the next few days would offer their sensibilities poor comfort.” 

“It wasn’t the miles of buildings stripped of their shingles and their windows caved in or the streets awash with floating trash or the live oaks that had been punched through people’s roofs. It was the literal powerlessness of the city that was overwhelming.  The electric grid had been destroyed and the water pressure had died in every faucet in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes.  The pumps that should have forced water out of the storm sewers were themselves flooded and totally useless.  Gas mains burned underwater or sometimes burst flaming from the earth…The entire city, within one night, had been reduced to the technological level of the Middle Ages.” 

“The sun was merciless in the sky, the humidity like lines of ants crawling inside your clothes.  The linear structure of a neighborhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.” 

“They drowned in attics and on the second floor of their houses.  They drowned along the edges of Highway 23…They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead.  They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion…” 

            Dark stuff, certainly.  However, as he always does, Burke also gives accounts of heroism and resilience, celebrating the best in people during the worst of times.  Robicheaux manages to find enough decency around him to give him hope for the human condition.  In the wake of the hurricanes Robicheaux becomes swept up in a complex murder investigation that involves two of his best friends, several corrupt local businessmen, killers for hire, and an innocent long-suffering family.  In addition to the satisfaction of a great mystery, the reader will also get a moving story and a sweeping examination of the effects of a disaster on people and communities.

            New readers could start with any book in the series, but for maximum enjoyment I strongly recommend starting at the beginning with Neon Rain.  If you take this recommendation, I envy you; the first reading of a great book (or series of books) is always a treat.

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