There is an eternal debate about whether the best Crime Fiction can ever hold its head up as the equal of the literary novel.Â Just as ‘proper’ authors like Martin Amis, William Boyd and even Charles Dickens can and have turned their hand to mystery fiction, so there exists a strata of ‘crime’ novelists who really can be counted among the great and the good of the literary world. Let’s not pretend that the average Christie/ Rendell/ PD James pot-boiler is anything other than (in Graham Greene’s words) an ‘entertainment’, but the boundaries surrounding the writing of those writers of the calibre of John Harvey, George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, David Peace and Raymond Chandler are blurred to say the least. A good crime novel can be a good novel and this by James Lee Burke falls very much into both categories.
When the stink of destruction and death lifts off the page and you can practically hear the cries of anguish, you know that the author is a novelist to be reckoned with, whatever the genre. That’s what James Lee Burke has done with ‘The Tin Roof Blowdown’.
This powerful post-Katrina novel, features his main series policeman, Dave Robicheaux, whoÂ is called out of his own police district of New Iberia to help out in the beleaguered Big Sleazy. Along the way he gets caught up in the disappearance of a Catholic Priest, a seemingly random shooting and looting unexpectedly rich pickings from the home of old-school mobster and florist, Sidney Kovick. In Burke’s skilled hands, there are more shades of gray than you’ll find in an eye-specialists’ wall-chart. No one is all bad â€“ Â nor is anyone (Robicheaux and the Priest included) – beyond reproach.
At the centre of the action are Otis and Melanie Baylor, middle class whites with a daughter who had previously been raped by young black men. These men themselves, admittedly no angels, show up unwittingly to loot the houses in Baylor’s street and Otis â€“ whose background included watching his father and uncle attend Ku Klux Klan burnings in Alabama – is driven to anger. Shots are fired but the Baylors deny any involvement. Robicheaux is ordered to check it out.
One of the looters, Bertrand Melancon, sees his brother shot and seriously wounded and a young friend killed. He also soon becomes aware that the diamonds and cash they’ve stripped out of Kovick’s walls are likely to get him tortured and disposed of, as a couple of psychopaths take up his trail. As Robicheaux’s ex-partner, renegade bail-bondsman Clete Purcel tells him: ‘Hey, kid, if you stole anything from Sidney Kovick, mail it to him COD from Alaska, then buy a gun and shoot yourselfâ€¦ With luck, he won’t find your grave.’
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Â came as a devastating blow to a country that thought its racial divide was largely behind it. To remember how deep the racism was in New Orleans back in the ‘old days’ one only has to recall the 1965 Football Boycott of New Orleans that occurred after numerous black players were refused service by a number ofÂ hotels and businesses in the Big Easy, and white cabdrivers refused to carry black passengers. The treatment of the poor black population in the aftermath of the Hurricane’s devastation recalled these days and Burke puts a fictional but very insightful spin on real life events and emotions.
‘The Tin Roof Blowdown’ is James Lee Burke’s masterpiece. He’ll be hard-pressed to equal it.