Book review: In 'Creole Belle,' American master James Lee Burke digs deeper
Great mysteries probe the human condition deeply, exposing dark places to light. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett effected that deadpan and sleekly codifying noir. Stieg Larsson gave such explorations a pale, brutal twist in his three "Girl" books, unified by the characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, and Jo Nesbo is building a similarly nuanced and ambiguous world in his Harry Hole series.
The American master of this noble and underrated game is James Lee Burke, a writer of old-fashioned grandeur and modern sensibility. "Creole Belle" is the 19th Burke book to star Dave Robicheaux, a New Orleans cop whose moral compass never deviates despite the sensual, treacherous world Dave occupies. It's a feast of local color.
Simon & Schuster ($27.99).
As he recovers from a gunshot wound, Tee Jolie Melton, a sexy young thing who lives and sings the blues, visits Dave. She leaves him an iPod with a bluesy song list, and then disappears. The iPod is real but the visit feels like a dream, perhaps because of Dave's morphine haze.
Weeks later, Tee Jolie's sister, Blue, turns up naked in a block of ice. Jimmy Clanton's guileless "Just a Dream" drifts into the soundtrack. And so Mr. Burke begins to whisk the ingredients of his latest gumbo, interlacing thoughts on how energy corrupts (the BP oil spill is a leitmotif), slavery white and more traditional, Nazi experiments, Medieval torture and modern weaponry, the connections between the underworld and the 1 percent that employs it, and the relationship between generations.
While Mr. Burke's plot is typically Byzantine, the moral underpinnings are clear, the pairings symmetrical. The notion of kin -- particularly complex in racially perplexing Louisiana -- is key. Dave allies with his daughter, Alafair; Clete Purcel, the grandly self-destructive ex-cop who has had Dave's back forever, spars and bonds with his daughter, Gretchen Horowitz; Alexis Dupree channels evil through his offspring, Pierre Dupree; and the cracker Jesse Leboeuf plays off his randy, lethal daughter Varina.
All come together in ways that cross the violent and the erotic, a Burke trademark like duality: Gretchen may be a hit man who kills lowlifes; Pierre Dupree may embody miscegenation even as his forebear, that stylish old man Alexis Dupree, may be an angel of death. As for the Leboeuf clan, trust is not their signature.
In places, the story overheats. When a gaggle of characters come together at a 1940s revue, the action moves so fast it's hard to keep track. Same holds true for the infernal, final confrontation between Dave, Clete, Gretchen and Alafair, and their nemesis, the Duprees. Despite such overstuffing, Burke's language and his Faulknerian character development prevail.
This description of a bit player who works with a slightly larger player, Jimmy the Dime, illustrates Burke's humor, knowing sensibility and command of the vernacular:
"Jimmy's eccentricities, however, were nothing compared to those of his full-time podjo and part-time business partner, Count Carbona, also known as Baron Belladonna. The Count wore a black cape and a purple slouch hat and had a face like a perpendicular chunk of train rail. The Count shaved off his eyebrows and was obsessed with the female rock-and-roll singers he believed lived under Lake Pontchartrain. If anyone asked how he knew about the women under the lake, the Count explained that he communicated with them daily through the drain in his lavatory. The Count's current underwater drainpipe pal was Joan Jett."
Dave subtly threads his informer, the Count, into the story line, which, in a larger sense, is about loyalty and its costs. Dave and Clete, who bicker like a married couple, are above all loyal to each other. Dave calls this installment in a series going back 25 years "our Elizabethan tale on the banks of Bayou Teche."
In "Creole Belle," Dave and Clete again beat back the darkness, but not without a fight (or two or three). Never happens any other way. Wouldn't matter any other way.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am