The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Dave Robicheaux is back with a bang. This time he is tasked with helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which has ravaged his native New Orleans.
Although Dave is now a member of law enforcement in New Iberia, the authorities in The Big Easy are in pieces after the destruction wrought there. Chaos rules. Looters feel all their Christmases have come at once. Homeowners, who have refused to evacuate, are intent on defending their properties. Some have decided to use the occasion as an excuse for ‘hunting’ those of racial minorities. The cops are overwhelmed.
When Bertrand and Eddie Melancon decide to break into a nice home in the suburbs, they have no idea of the shitstorm that they have unleashed. Their substantial and illicit haul belongs to the most dangerous man in the city and he wants his goods back, at all costs.
When the two bothers are shot at by a homeowner, Robicheaux is given the lead in the investigation. It emerges that there is more going on than meets the eye as various strands converge and merge in an expertly crafted plot.
As is usual with Burke’s tales, we have the entry of a seriously disturbed personality into the mix. In this case he is Ronald Bledsoe and he is one unhinged individual. Toss in a drug addict priest, a kindly prostitute, members of MS 13, Dave’s tough boss, Helen, the FBI, Clete Purcel who is a book on his own, a major business leader and, of course, the hellish scene left behind by Katrina, and you have the makings of a great novel.
I must confess, that although I had heard of Hurricane Katrina, and knew some of the havoc that it caused, I was not overly familiar with just how bad it got. The finer details are often lost in the news stories that reach us here in the East Atlantic. The Tin Roof Blowdown changed all that. In this novel, the author has put a human face on the effects of such a storm. He has personalized the horror in the lives of the characters that he has created. The reader learns of how the elderly were treated during and after the event. We come to understand how corrupt elements in the NOPD sought financial gain from the suffering of others. We realize the desperation felt by the residents of an impoverished city.
Many commentators have spoken of the failures of the federal government in their response to the disaster. FEMA was a bad joke and Burke does not spare their blushes. Yet he also gives credit where it is due, in those cops who did not shirk their duties, in the coast guard who behaved heroically, in the medical professionals who slogged through carnage and death, and in the many people who stepped forward to help their fellow citizens. This book is an education on Hurricane Katrina. It is also a bloody good read.
James Lee Burke is a master at weaving various subplots together. His timing is excellent. His characters are interesting and believable, even the most outlandish among them. His approach is remarkable. I’m a fan.
The only question I have in this story is that of the glowing lights that are mentioned repeatedly as having been seen under the surface of the murky floodwaters. This is never fully explained and we are left to reach our own conclusions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Burke does not fear the use of theological and supernatural suggestion. Yet he does not weigh a story down with it. His insinuations become one more layer in a multi-layered book.
I often find Burke’s books to be strongly allegorical in that they all have deeper messages that swim freely throughout. The reader can enjoy the books at the superficial level and they are good for that. But, if desired, those who wish to ponder in more depth can immerse themselves in what Burke is trying to tell us about society, the human condition, and life. The Tin Roof Blowdown is a good example of this. Readers will note the moral dilemma surrounding Bertrand and his dealings with Thelma. There is also the matter of Thelma’s father and his unfortunate past. In fact, most of Burke’s lead characters appear to have suffered from a tough childhood. It is a recurring theme in his writing and I tentatively wonder if he has experience of such terrors.
Nevertheless, Burke doesn’t dwell too long on such weighty matters and the pace never slackens. Dave Robicheaux has become familiar to me and millions of others. He’s a nice guy, one of the good ones. I always look forward to reading about his fictional life. I rarely want to put the book down. I can do James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux no better compliment than that.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. This is a must for those who wish to learn about the aftermath of a hurricane or any natural disaster and its impact upon the people who have suffered. It is a must for those who know New Orleans. It is a must for those who love a good yarn, and it is a must for those who wish to lose themselves in one helluva great read. Highly recommended.