There’s an eternal debate about whether the best Crime Fiction can ever hold its head up as the equal of the literary novel. ‘Proper’ authors like Martin Amis, William Boyd and even Charles Dickens turned their hand to mystery fiction. And there exists a strata of ‘crime’ novelists who can be counted among the great and the good of literature. James Lee Burke is among the best.
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 some Mystery authors are extraordinarygood. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking John Harvey, George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, David Peace and Raymond Chandler. A good crime novel can be a good novel. 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 James Lee Burke’s main series policeman, Dave Robicheaux. Called out of his own police district of New Iberia to help out in the beleaguered Big Sleazy. The disappearance of a Catholic Priest and a seemingly random shooting and looting divert Dave’s attention. Not to mention, the unexpectedly rich pickings from the home of old-school mobster and florist, Sidney Kovick. In Burke’s skilled hands, there are more shades of grey than you’ll find in an eye-specialists’ wall-chart. No one is all bad: nor is anyone (Robicheaux and the Priest included) – beyond reproach.
Step up Otis and Melanie Baylor…
Otis and Melanie Baylor seem to be at the centre of everything. Middle-class whites, their daughter was raped by young black men. Admittedly no angels, the same men show up unwittingly to loot the houses in Baylor’s street. Otis gets mad. His father and uncle took part in Ku Klux Klan burnings in Alabama, so his background isn’t too promising. Shots are fired. But the Baylors deny being part of it
It’s Robicheaux’s job to check it out. But 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 yourself. With luck, he won’t find your grave.'”
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina came as a devastating blow to a country that thought its racial divide was largely behind it. New Orleans has always been a powder keg of race relations. Black players couldn’t get served in numerous hotels and businesses in the Big Easy in the early 1960s. This led to the 1965 New Orleans Football Boycott. White cabdrivers routinely refused to carry black passengers, no matter what their status. 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. How can he possibly better it?