Byline: DAVID SEXTON
OVER the past 20 years, James Lee Burke has written 16 novels about hisNew Iberia parish detective, Dave Robicheaux. In some ways, they're quiteformulaic.
Robicheaux is much troubled, haunted by nightmares from his experiences inVietnam and his own violent and alcoholic past, which keeps threatening toerupt into his life again. He mourns the loss of his Cajun background and isalways aware of the brutal, racist history of the South.
The centre of his life is his home on Bayou Teche and his familyhis second wife, Molly (his first having been murdered), their adopted daughterAlafair, and their menagerie, Snuggs, their cat, and Tripod, a three-leggedraccoon. In each adventure, Robicheaux's own family become threatened and heresorts to desperate measures to protect them.
His regular sidekick is a former policeman, now a private investigator, thewonderfully named Clete Purcell. Clete is Robicheaux's dark sidefrom an even poorer background, a practising alcoholic, obese and unhealthy butenormously strong, resorting to violence on the least pretext. He is alsocompletely loyal and fearless.
In every novel, Burke creates extraordinary villains for Robicheaux and Purcellto facenot just mafia bosses, corrupt landowners and local politicians, but crazypreachers, off-the-wall psychopaths and enraged losers. There hangs over hisbooks an atmosphere not just of doom but of damnation: preordained fatesworking towards their inescapable ends. In a melodramatic way, they are clearlythe product of a religious sensibility, maybe in Burke's case heightened by hisown experience of alcoholism and recovery. However stylised the action, theseare stories of moral struggle, about trying to behave honourably in unforgivingcircumstances.
Moreover, Burke's prose is far more highly worked, aphoristic even, than thatusually to be found in police procedurals.
Although it's richly descriptive of the Louisiana countryside, weather,architecture and so forth, it's never naturalistic.
These are metaphysical landscapes always, charged with meaning and ominoussignificance, down to the least glint of sunlight or shiver of grass in thewind.
In August 2005, New Orleans was torn apart by Hurricane Katrinaand then flooded as the levees broke. Altogether, 1,836 lives were lost.Looting broke out in the aftermath. National Guard troops were sent in torestore order.
Although mostly set two hours' drive away, Burke's novels have always cherishedNew Orleans, "a song, not a city".
Initially, he says, he thought Katrina was too big and depressing a subject towrite about, like 9/11, but then he published a short story called Jesus Out toSea, about a priest who stayed with his congregation in the Lower Ninth Wardand was swept away by the waters. It became the basis of The Tin Roof Blowdown.
Father Jude Leblanc, a friend of Robicheaux's, is a junkie, but one "whose onlytrepidation in life was his fear that the uncontrollable shaking in his handswould cause him to drop the chalice while giving Communion". On the night ofthe flood, he is bringing a boat to rescue people from the roof of a churchwhen it is commandeered by looters and he disappears, presumably drowned. …