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A Storm in the Big Easy

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2007. 384 pages.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s bayou detective, Dave Robicheaux, have doubtless wondered not if, but how well, Burke would incorporate Hurricane Katrina into his next novel about Robicheaux and the Big Easy. The Tin Roof Blowdown (Simon & Schuster, 2007) gives these readers their answer: very well indeed.

All the elements that bring readers time and again to Burke’s books abound in The Tin Roof Blowdown. Robicheaux still struggles with the demons from his past: combat in Vietnam, alcoholism, police work in one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country, a murdered wife, dead friends. Here, too, is Clete Purcel, Robicheaux’s best friend, still eating too much Cajun food, still drinking, still smoking, and still dealing out two-fisted trouble to the bad guys as he hunts down rogues and murderers. Here are the lovely descriptions of the South Louisiana countryside, the bayou country with its soft mornings, its blazing noons, its deep, mysterious nights.

This Deep South countryside has in Burke’s novels always counted as a character in its own right, as real as Purcel or Robicheaux, In The Tin Roof Blowdown Burke adds another inanimate being to his usual list of characters: Hurricane Katrina. Right from the beginning, Burke shows readers the force of Katrina as a living entity, ferocious and deadly, a beast that literally destroyed a good part of a major city, that set into motion not only the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, but also the criminal acts that clawed at the city and the surrounding countryside after the winds had stopped blowing, an explosion in criminality that continues to this day.

“Looters were hitting pharmacies and liquor and jewelry stores first, then working their way down the buffet table. A rogue group of NOPD cops had actually set up a thieves headquarters on the tenth floor of a downtown hotel, storing their loot in the rooms ... New Orleans cops also drove off with automobiles from the Cadillac agency. Gang bangers had converged on the Garden District, and were having a Visigoth holiday, burning homes built before the Civil War, carrying away whatever wasn’t bolted down.”

Burke follows several criminals whose fate is fixed by the flood. Bertrand Melancon, his brother Eddy, and another friend have raped a young girl, killed a priest in order to steal his boat, and are unknowingly gutting and burglarizing the house of a powerful gangster when a neighbor opens fire on them. Only Bertrand ultimately survives that gun battle, and he comes to see himself as a dead man when he learns more about Sidney Kovick. “Hey, kid, if you stole anything from Sidney Kovick, mail it to him COD from Alaska, then buy a gun and shoot yourself,” Clete Purcel advises. “With luck, he won’t find your grave.”

In the meantime, the gangster, Sidney Kovick, is hot on Bertrand’s heels, seeking revenge for his demolished house and the recovery of some extremely valuable diamonds Bertrand has stolen. Other criminals become involved on one side or the other of this chase, including a psychotic serial rapist and killer, Ronald Bledsoe.

Dave Robicheaux, who is still working as a detective in New Iberia, takes on the break-in and shooting case. In his investigation he drops his readers into the dark heart of New Orleans while at the same time giving them some beautiful prose pictures celebrating the city before its devastation. With a plot as complicated as any Burke has ever written — Robicheaux helps readers keep track of the twisting story through frequent recitations of criminal activities — The Tin Roof Blowdown throws a harsh light on the criminal acts that followed in Katrina’s wake. We see the brutality that characterizes these men: the brutality of Eddy Melancon; the more sophisticated, but still bloody path of murder followed by Sidney Kovick; and the senseless, sick violence practiced by Ronald Bledsoe.

Through Robicheaux’s investigations, however, we not only learn how these criminals operate. We begin to understand why some of them behave the way they do. We understand that Kovick, who uses a floral shop as his front, can master his predilection for violence. We come to view him as a man who has an eye both for beauty and death. In Bertrand Melancon Burke creates a young man whose life has followed a course of brutality, yet in the wake of Katrina, he seeks redemption for himself.

Molly, the ex-nun who is Robicheaux’s wife, and Alafair, Robicheaux’s adopted daughter, also undergo changes amidst the brutality that funnels out of the hurricane. Normally an advocate of pacifism, Molly eventually has Robicheaux teach her how to shoot a handgun. Alafair, who is trying to write a novel and is soon off to college, has become a strong-hearted young woman who eventually must confront Ronald Bledsoe, the psycho-killer determined to take vengeance on her.

The people of New Orleans and the surrounding countryside, the social classes to which they belong, the houses and the landscape, the days and nights and weather — all will appear as familiar in The Tin Roof Blowdown as in any of the Dave Robicheaux novels. What makes this book different than the others is, of course, Katrina. Through Robicheaux’s eyes we see that Katrina destroyed more than homes and historic places. It damaged the souls of human beings as well, offering the opportunity to indulge in robbery, rape, and killing. And yet Robicheaux also witnesses acts of heroism as well, like the priest trying to rescue victims in the middle of the flood. Like Robicheaux, we watch several characters regretting their behavior, wishing they had made different choices in their time of trial.

By the end of The Tin Roof Blowdown, Burke has given us the chance to see the storm and its aftermath from many different viewpoints, causing the reader to ask: How would I behave in such a situation? On which side — and there are many sides — would I take my stand?

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