James Lee Burke is often considered one of America's top crime writers. The Tin Roof Blowdown is the sixteenth novel in the Dave Robicheaux series and it opens as Hurricane Katrina sweeps in from the Bay of Mexico and wreaks havoc on the city of New Orleans. As those people left behind in the city try to cope with high floods, electrical outages, panic and death, Bertrand Melacon, his brother Eddy, and two friends go on a looting spree in a rich neighbourhood where Otis Baylor and Tom Claggart have stayed behind to defend their properties. A few months previously the four young hoods had viciously gang-raped Baylor’s daughter. Now they rip apart his neighbour’s house after finding hundreds of thousands of dollars and blood diamonds hidden in wall cavities. As they make their getaway someone shoots two of the looters, killing one, paralysing the other. Dave Robicheaux is drafted in from New Iberia to help with the deluge of carnage and to try and help restore order, and his best friend Clete Purcel is trying to track down Bertrand and Eddy Melacon for bond agents. Soon both are drawn into the case, which takes a turn for the worse when they discover the house the Melacon’s looted is Sidney Kovich’s, one of the city’s most notorious mobsters. In the hunt to recover the money and diamonds Robicheaux’s family is drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Every writer, every artist who visited New Orleans fell in love with it. The city might have been the Great Whore of Babylon, but few ever forgot or regretted her embrace.
What was its future?
I looked through my windshield and saw fallen trees everywhere, power and phone lines hanging from utility poles, dead traffic lights, gutted downtown buildings so badly damaged the owners had not bothered to cover the blown-out windows with plywood. The job ahead was Herculean and it was compounded by a level of corporate theft and governmental incompetence and cynicism that probably has no equal outside the Third World. I wasn’t sure New Orleans had a future.
I’ve read a few of Burke’s previous books but I had a hard time with The Tin Roof Blowdown. Some of the lyrical prose for which Burke is known is present, and the dialogue is often sharp, but I nearly gave up after the first thirty pages. It felt to me as if two books had been clunked together – one a political commentary on Katrina and its aftermath (particularly in the first 60 pages or so), the other the story outlined above. Rather than letting the story do the commentary (as with the Hans Falada book I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), Burke has whole paragraphs effectively setting out his views on the catastrophe and who was responsible for the mayhem that followed. It simply didn’t work for me. My sense is that Burke let his personal anger and frustration bubble over into the text at the story’s expense.
Added to that the story itself stretched reality to breaking point, with multiple sub-plots that conveniently overlap and opportune lapses in law enforcement procedure. I generally don’t mind that in thrillers, but this time out I just couldn’t buy into it. Robicheaux uses the law when it suits and takes it into his own hands the rest of the time, seemingly without any penalty. The fact that Robicheaux’s still alive at this stage given he’s regularly up to his neck in dramatic cases that always seem to involve violence directed at him and his family is a miracle. I’ve enjoyed the past books, but The Tin Roof Blowdown was, for me, a let down.