I have an odd relationship with James Lee Burke. Every time I read one of his novels I’m amazed that I haven’t read him more often. It’s like that friend everyone has who you only cross paths with maybe once a year – you hang out, have a few drinks, have wonderful conversations that make you feel like this person really understands the universe on a dizzying, mysterious, fundamental level. You take your leave, vowing to get together more often, but you never do, and then a year goes by and you bump into that person and the cycle starts all over again.
Burke is a mystery novelist who writes about Dave Robicheaux, police detective and recovering alcoholic in New Iberia Parish, right down the road from New Orleans. Burke is a noir novelist and writes about Bad People doing Bad Things, but his prose, which is as lovely and unique as the city he loves, can only be described as lyrical, focusing on epic stories of redemption and loss in the Big Easy. Burke never looks at New Orleans through rose-colored glasses – he accepts the bad along with the good, the beautiful aside the corrupt, and often ties them up within the same person.
“Tin Roof Blowdown” is Burke’s long goodbye to New Orleans, left shattered by Katrina and the bones picked over by the people who were supposed to restore it. Looters roam the streets, everyone’s looking out for themselves, and hope is a rare and precious thing. Robicheaux gets tangled up in several storylines, and Katrina is almost treated like a character herself in the novel. Even though all seems to be lost, Burke’s love and desire for his city’s redemption is so bright it burns, almost as if he could heal his beloved city by words alone, and I was surprisingly emotional at the end of the novel. This is one of Burke’s absolute best, and a great jumping-on point if you’ve never read him before.