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Onyx reviews: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

Few writers write with such eloquence about terrible actions and desperate lives. The opening chapters of The Tin Roof Blowdown possess lyrical beauty as Burke paints tragic portraits of a few ordinary people who suffer tragic consequences. It's an angry book, but it isn't primarily about Katrina, even though the book starts shortly before the hurricane strikes the Louisiana coast. Neither is it about the devastating failure of the levee system around New Orleans, though James Lee Burke delves into the political, social and personal effects of the stores and explores the despair of a city that was hit when it was down and hit again.

What Dave Robicheaux—a man who has seen many dark deeds throughout his life and during his career in law enforcement in and about New Orleans—knows is that crime doesn't stop for bad weather, no matter the scale. In fact, there is an element that flourishes when society falters. In the hours and days after floodwaters inundate the city, terrified people commit desperate acts. A priest—Dave refers to him as the centerpiece of his story even though he never appears onscreen—is murdered for his cheap but serviceable boat. Looters invade businesses and homes. Rumors of atrocities abound.

Amidst the mayhem, a quartet of hapless thieves picks the wrong place to rob. At the nicest house in a ritzy neighborhood, the foursome—in their stolen boat—discovers a prize beyond their limited capacity to dream. Within the walls of mobster Sidney Kovick's house they uncover a cache of drugs, cash and something even more valuable. Though this surprise windfall has political connotations, the stolen items mean little more to the story than an elaborate McGuffin, something one group of bad guys has that other bad guys want so the good guys—such as they are—can get caught in the crossfire.

One of Sidney Kovick's neighbors is Otis Baylor, an insurance agent determined to do right by his clients, approving claims that many others are delaying or denying. His daughter was raped two years earlier on the night of her senior prom when her boyfriend's car battery died in a bad neighborhood. In one of those coincidences that strain credibility in fiction, her assailants are the same men who loot Kovick's house. On that confusing dark night, a gunshot rings out. One of the looters is killed and a second is paralyzed. Otis made an unfortunate racist comment earlier that evening, turning him into the main suspect.

Law enforcement agents from around the state are scrambled to help out in New Orleans. Dave has suffered greatly—he's a widower, recovering alcoholic, foster father, and Vietnam vet. The storm reminds him of the detestation of war, reactivates post-traumatic stress and deepens his omnipresent angst. He never thought he would again see something as bad as the war—but the storm's destructive force was greater than that of Hiroshima bomb. It's almost enough to drive him to drink again. When he isn't maintaining the peace, he tries to ascertain the fate of a fallen and dying priest, a drug addict last seen in the company of a prostitute.

He's also assigned to the Baylor shooting case. Racial tensions are high, and the possibility that a white man took lethal action against a black petty criminal requires a delicate hand. The powers that be in New Orleans have no desire for a wave of vigilantism. Dave isn't known for his delicacy, but he's light years ahead of his long-time friend and former partner, Clete Purcel, who gives bulls in china shops a bad name. Dave and Clete's paths continually cross with the same people, making post-Katrina New Orleans seem like a small town. Before the storm struck, Clete was trying to round up a couple of bail skippers, the same men involved in the rape and the shooting, another link in the improbable chain of coincidence that mars this book.

Their surprise booty puts the looters in the sights of the owners of the stolen valuables. Enter Ronald Bledsoe, the type of amoral villain who has become a cliché in Burke's novels. Bledsoe is a nearly perfect killing machine operating on his own moral wavelength. He immediately crosses the line with Dave by approaching his foster daughter Alafair, who is now an adult, a writer (thereby providing Burke with a mouthpiece to discuss issues important to writers) and somewhat capable of looking after herself. Alafair takes Bledsoe by surprise during their first encounter, bloodying him with a lucky move, but Dave knows that in the long run she's unequipped to deal with such a man. Unfortunately, Dave's overprotectiveness pushes Alafair to behave recklessly. Young adults are slow to accept their mortality.

As is his habit, Burke dabbles with the supernatural or the metaphysical, without offering any explanation. On the night the priest was killed for his boat, several people witnessed lights in the water. If they are meant to signify something important, Burke doesn't show his hand.

Burke's books present a dilemma. The man can write circles around many of his contemporaries, and no one does "deeply flawed" better. The tragedy that befell the city he so often writes about provides him with a prime opportunity to say something meaningful. However, he has adopted a number of writing tics—the sociopathic killer, for example—that lead to a certain sameness in his stories. Hurricane Katrina would have been a sufficient mindless force for most other writers, and Burke diminishes the importance of this event by resorting to one of his clichés.

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