Today is the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast. It is fitting then to talk about the novel that may well become the definitive fictional treatment of the storm’s arrival in New Orleans, James Lee Burke’s Tin Roof Blowdown. (Link goes to an excerpt.) Tin Roof is the 16th installment in Burke’s Dave Robicheeaux detective series (if you’re not familiar with French pronunciations, that’s robe-i-show).
Robicheaux is a detective with the New Iberia Police Department. He’s a Vietnam veteran and a recovering alcoholic. There are no shortage to the demons that haunt Detective Robicheaux, but he thought that they were in his past. In the first chapter, the detective, awoken by a recurring Vietnam nightmare, says:
When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.
But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.
After the hurricane hits, Detective Robichaux is called into action to assist the Feds and the New Orleans Police Department with the investigation of a murder. A black looter was found shot in an upscale, and mostly white, neighborhood. Burke uses the investigation of the shooting to lead the reader into all of the unseemly aspects of the storm and its aftermath – exposing the senseless death, racism, violence, betrayal, desperation, greed, futility, horror, human misery, and the inexplicable world of politics.
It is a testament to Burke that he can hit all of these hot-button issues without being condescending to the residents of the city or preachy to those who live elsewhere. Having written fifteen prior novels about the region, Burke may be singularly qualified to tackle Katrina. It has been said that if you read all 16 of the Dave Robichaux novels, a contemporary history of New Orleans will emerge. In fact, this may be the book that Burke’s entire career has been building towards. Burke’s descriptions of Louisiana have been honed to gleaming mirror.
Detective Robichaux’s home in New Iberia is west of New Orleans in Louisiana’s Cajun country. It is a real place – it’s where Tabasco comes from. James Lee Burke splits his time between New Iberia and Montana, so he knows the lay of the land. In the 2005 hurricane season, New Iberia was battered by Katrina and then pummeled by Rita. In my thinking, it’s the perfect place for a writer to emerge to write “the great Katrina novel” – close enough to have experienced first hand the impact of the storm with the perfect amount of distance to allow for some amount of remove and perspective. And I’m saying that this is “the great Katrina novel.” Or at least the best so far.
As a detective story, the novel may disappoint true fans of the genre. The case is a little murky, and its resolution is too realistic to be truly satisfying. Bad men go to jail, but the powerful men pulling the strings may go free. In the end, the crime is almost beside the point. Detective Robichaux leaves the real mystery at the center of this novel unsolved:
The failure to repair the levees before Katrina and the abandonment of tens of thousands of people to their fate in the aftermath have causes that I’ll let other people sort out.