April 25, 2018
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“The Tin Roof Blowdown: A Dave Robicheaux Novel.” Burke, James Lee

By: Berniece Owen
April 13, 2018

Born in Texas in 1939, raised on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, James Lee Burke lives part-time in New Iberia, Louisiana. He is well-qualified to write about the area that is featured in this gritty novel. I have not read his stories previously, but “Tin Roof” seems to be an excellent introduction.

This is the 16th of 21 appearances by Dave Robicheaux, a Louisiana detective with a checkered history as a Vietnam veteran, a recovering alcoholic and resident of New Iberia. Dave, his family and his fellow police officers are reeling in the aftermath of Katrina, a Category 3 real-life hurricane, which devastated New Orleans in August, 2005.  

Burke’s description of the storm’s aftermath—the stickiness of the air, the smells of decay and garbage, the up-ended buildings and muddy roadways are compelling. Readers are left with no doubt that he observed the devastation himself.

The action of the story follows the travails of the good, the bad and the ugly of New Orleans, a city known in happier times as “the Big Easy.” With necessary services such as electric power, fresh water supplies, sewage and garbage disposal cut off, honest and dishonest citizens alike must find ways to cope. The contrasts between the coping skills underlie the stories told.  Vigilantes appear to deal with thieves. Past crimes become current again when neighborhood boundaries disappear. Black and white differences become prominent.

Every character is vivid. Dave Robicheaux wrestles with memories of his past as he views the devastation around him. He must also deal with the actions of a private-eye friend who seems to be turning into one of the vigilantes. Furthermore, his own daughter has been threatened by a stranger with evil eyes. Her response frustrates Dave because he believes it puts her in more peril. 

Surrounding the characters is the atmosphere of ruin from the storm. Resentment against authorities who appeared to be helpless to soften the effects and aftereffects of the hurricane is an underlying simmer throughout the events of the story. Criminal activity and murder become mixed with the harsh facts of wind and flooding. Burke has done a masterful job of blending fact and fiction into a seamless tale.

The devastation Burke describes brings up memories of the fires that raged through Sonoma County last fall. I imagine that families facing the loss of their homes and store owners the loss of their livelihood through fire live through the same sense of helplessness and abandonment that wind and flood victims experience. However, federal assistance was very slow to arrive in the Gulf Coast. There is a strong implication that the crime and poverty of many areas of New Orleans contributed to attitudes of indifference.

But Burke also makes clear that not everyone turned their backs or looked away. The massive hurricane was simply too big to allow quick and adequate response. The groundwork had not been laid. However, Dave Robicheaux continues to do his job in spite of the devastation. Author James Burke makes the story believable on all levels. He brings a satisfying conclusion to the traditional crime novel story line in the midst of Katrina’s ugliness. – An engrossing story-well told.

Berniece Owen, Reviewer, Retired Librarian, Resident of Rohnert Park