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The Tin Roof Blowdown - Excerpt - Reviews

July, 2007 (Robicheaux)

Dark Water

Published: August 12, 2007
If I’d been asked to bet on who’d write the definitive crime novel about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans, my money would have been on James Lee Burke. And that’s just what he delivers in THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN (Simon & Schuster, $26), a hard-boiled cops-and-robbers yarn that puts a human face on anonymous acts of good and evil in the chaos and horror of this natural disaster and its manmade aftermath.

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Brad Kemp/Associated Press
James Lee Burke

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Harnessing all his poetic skills, Burke delivers his dispatches in torrents of sorrow and rage. Seen from this vantage, the hurricane sweeps in with fierce majesty, shredding the fragile coastline and lingering to toy with the most helpless of its victims. When it finally moves on, “the damage in New Orleans,” Detective Dave Robicheaux remarks, is “of a kind we associate with apocalyptical images from the Bible.” The images Burke chooses — of abandoned hospitals, “Visigoth”-style vandalism and pandemonium at the Convention Center — are memorable in their own hellish ways. But the sights that really burn your eyes are grimly surreal: a dead baby hanging from the branches of a tree and “thousands of shrieking birds” circling overhead, “as though they had no place to land.” And the question that stays with you is posed by an old man poking through the rubble, looking for his drowned wife: “How come nobody come for us?”

The scene that haunts more than one character is set in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Father Jude LeBlanc ventures into the floodwaters and disappears. When last seen, he’s being attacked while climbing onto the roof of a church from a motorboat, ax in hand, trying to rescue a group of parishioners trapped in the attic.

After the pummeling the state has taken, the legal system in southern Louisiana is barely functioning. Like other able-bodied police officers, Robicheaux is reassigned from his home base of New Iberia to cover crimes in New Orleans, in his case the shooting of two looters who unwittingly robbed and trashed the home of a New Orleans mobster. But Father LeBlanc, known around town as “the junkie priest,” was a friend of Robicheaux’s, and he makes LeBlanc’s fate a priority mission as he navigates the city looking for forensic evidence — and for answers to some of the deeper mysteries of human behavior.

The novel’s expansive plot allows Robicheaux to grapple with the good, the bad and the morally confused, while its biblical theme gives even the worst criminals a chance to repent and make amends. And while Burke blames neither God nor nature for the ruination of New Orleans, he can’t forgive the federal government for contributing to the city’s vulnerability, then turning its back on the ensuing destruction.

From The New York Times
July 23, 2007

Flood-Damaged Souls Finding Opportunity


In his latest novel James Lee Burke bears witness to ''all the events that had turned a gingerbread Caribbean city into food for every kind of jackal in the book'': the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Few writers are as expertly equipped for this task. Mr. Burke has long celebrated the rollicking joys of New Orleans, a city he has described as ''the Great Whore of Babylon'' in homage to its wild side. He was full of allusions about his beloved city long before a link to Atlantis became one of them.

In the aftermath of the destruction, he wrote eloquent, hyperbolic nonfiction in New Orleans's honor. ''New Orleans isn't a city,'' he said in an op-ed article for The Los Angeles Times. ''It's a Petrarchan sonnet.'' At that time he presented the same basic analysis of the city's troubles that shapes his latest novel, ''The Tin Roof Blowdown.'' Even before the tidal surge hit, thanks to cuts in federal aid and an influx of crack cocaine, Mr. Burke's New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen.

Although ''The Tin Roof Blowdown'' describes the storm and its horrors, Mr. Burke does not dwell on their shock value. He leaves that to others and moves on to tell his own kind of story.

Like the novelists who have most effectively captured the impact on New York of the World Trade Center collapse, he concentrates more intensely on his characters' inner lives than on the havoc around them. In Mr. Burke's universe of knights and grifters the post-Hurricane Katrina days are full of opportunity. The chaos tears off the veneers of civilized character to show what these people are really made of.

The illusion of safety is at the heart of this book. The story includes a white couple, Otis and Melanie Baylor, who go to bed in a warm, dry house with a generator while their fellow citizens are drowning. And the Baylors feel perfectly entitled to their good fortune. Otis is a decent insurance man; he will help claimants get around the semantics that could allow insurers to dodge payment for flood damage. That Otis grew up in Alabama watching his father and uncle attend Ku Klux Klan cross lightings has not intruded upon the Baylors' cocoon.

But something changed horribly after Otis's teenage daughter (and Melanie's stepdaughter) was abducted and raped by a group of black men two years ago. So when, during the storm, he looks outside his well-lighted home to see black looters boating through his neighborhood, Otis snaps. He makes a racist remark that startles even his most boorish rich neighbors. But when shots are fired at the looters, killing one and gravely wounding another, Otis claims innocent bystander status.

The looters literally strip away at the Baylors' kind of world. They take a crowbar to a grand old house nearby that is full of flowers. ''What kind of people put flower vases in every room in the house right before a hurricane?'' wonders Eddy Melancon, one of the hapless criminals who figure even more importantly in the novel than the Baylors do. Answer: People who own a flower shop but mostly use it as a front. The florist, Sidney Kovick, is the most vengeful and vicious mobster in town.

The looters have ripped some improbable contraband out of Sidney's walls before Eddy is shot and wounded. This leaves Eddy's brother, Bertrand, in a hopeless bind. How can he save his brother from both a gunshot wound and the many-tentacled gangster who has set his henchmen on the Melancons' trail?

''Hey, kid, if you stole anything from Sidney Kovick, mail it to him COD from Alaska, then buy a gun and shoot yourself,'' says Clete Purcel, who plays Sancho Panza to the series's main character, Dave Robicheaux. ''With luck, he won't find your grave.''

Wherever Clete appears, spouting choice examples of the local lingo (''Nobody jacks the Big Sleazy when the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide are on the job''), Dave, is seldom far away. Dave is Mr. Burke's sage detective with a long, checkered history of both bravery and trouble. ''He said the policeman was a drunk but he was a good man who tried to help people who didn't have no power,'' one flood victim says to Dave (now sober enough to invoke the precepts of Alcoholics Anonymous frequently). ''Isn't that you he was talking about?''

Indeed it is. And now that Dave has been sent from his home base in New Iberia to take on emergency duty in New Orleans, his wisdom and spiritual generosity are much in demand. It takes Dave to penetrate the racial and economic barriers that separate this book's characters and assess the mettle of each individual.

In Mr. Burke's universe, some of the saddest storm victims are those who committed terrible sins in a time of crisis and wish they could undo the transgressions. But like George Pelecanos's Washington, Mr. Burke's New Orleans is a place where the destinies of ghetto-bred young black men are all but determined at birth.

Mr. Burke sometimes shows an overheated, lyrical bent, and the extremes of Hurricane Katrina make it especially pronounced. ''Perhaps it was my imagination,'' Dave thinks, ''but I could almost feel a great weight oppressing the land, a darkness stealing across its surface, a theft of light that seemed to have no origin.''

Whether invoking William Blake's tiger or Voltaire's Candide, Dave thinks big. He reaches for literary as well as biblical terms to convey the apocalyptic magnitude of New Orleans's collapse. Never does he put it more succinctly than this: ''We saw an American city turned into Baghdad.''

A Harry Potter footnote: The Potter books are so ubiquitous that they even turn up inside this one. One of Mr. Burke's miscreants craftily claims to have been ''reading a Harry Potter book aloud to a roomful of Alzheimer patients.'' They can't vouch for that alibi.

“The Tin Roof Blowdown is James Lee Burke’s best Dave Robicheaux novel since In the Electric Mist of the Confederate Dead, which means that it's Faulknerian. Recovering alcoholic Robicheaux goes out to do justice in the violent aftermath of Katrina – “New Orleans was a song that went under the waves” – and the pols are behaving as badly as the cops, who are already in cahoots with the Mafia, and you can’t tell the race warriors from the vigilantes. Beneath the surface of these dark waters, in search of the body of a junkie priest, Robicheaux finds golden lights broken like Communion wafers.” – John Leonard, Harper’s

From Kirkus Reviews
June 15, 2007
A looting and shooting at the height of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction sucks Dave Robicheaux (Pegasus Descending, 2006, etc.) into New Orleans’s purgatorial ordeal. After hijacking a boat from a junkie priest who was fighting to rescue a crowd trapped in a church attick by Katrina’s rising waters, bail jumper Andre Rochon, together with his teenaged cousin Kevin and armed-robbery specialists Eddy and Bertrand Melancon, runs into both good fortune and bad. Breaking into
florist/gangster Sidney Kovick’s house, the looters find thousands in cash and a trove of blood diamonds. But when they try boosting some gas from insurance agent Otis Baylor, whose traumatized daughter Thelma recognizes them as the men who raped her after her senior prom, a single gunshot leaves one of them dead and another a helpless paraplegic, left to the mercy of the city’s monumentally overburdened
hospital system. Seconded from Iberia Parish to help the NOPD cope with the epidemic lawlessness, Robicheaux finds himself tangling with his eye-for-an-eye buddy Clete Purcel, Kovick’s gangland establishment, scary private eye Ronald Bledsoe and the usual quota of femmes fatales and lowlifes. Apart from the operatically scaled evocation of the hurricane, a shattering portrait Burke was born to create, the most striking creation here is Bertrand Melancon, a lost soul who can’t decide whether he’s an avenger or a penitent.

From Booklist:
Burke, James Lee. The Tin Roof Blowdown. July 2007. 352p. Simon & Schuster, $26
“I wanted to wake to the great, gold-green, sun-spangled promise of the South Louisiana in which I had grown up. I didn’t want to be part of the history taking place in our state.” That sentence wouldn’t be out of place in any of Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, all of which have been distinguished by their elegiac tone, but it’s only fitting that it should appear in his latest, a heartfelt post-Katrina ode to a lost New Orleans and a lost world. In a sense, Dave Robicheaux, Burke’s Cajun detective, whose heart is in the past and whose eyes are on the horizon, expecting trouble, has always been anticipating Katrina—or at least some form of cataclysm—as he has watched his world spin further and further out of control. But Katrina was no fictional event, and Burke writes about its aftermath as vividly and powerfully as any nonfiction chronicler. The plot itself, the investigation of the murder of two black men in the ninth ward, hinges on familiar Burke tropes—the powerless caught in a web of circumstance; surprising acts of nobility from the least likely people; unfathomable evil prompting eruptions of Robicheaux’s thinly suppressed rage—but the novel’s power comes from the way it explores the tragedy of Katrina in a way that is perfectly in tune with the series, a kind of perfect storm brought together by the confluence of fictional andnonfictional realms. —Bill Ott

Excerpt from the review of The Tin Roof Blowdown in the UK's The Independent:

‘It’s been a long time since a crime novel made me cry. It’s been a long time since a crime novel made every hair on my body stand on end. The Tin Roof Blowdown did both…In my opinion The Tin Roof Blowdown is more than a crime novel; more than a literary novel, even. It is a work of profound historical value and importance that should, no, must be read by anyone interested in what happens when a holocaust breaks loose and civilisation breaks down… There were moments when I wanted to put the book down, it was so painful to continue. But I couldn’t. Nor, I dare say, will anyone else.’

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