Sometimes people say they “ran across” a book, and that is close to how I came to read James Lee Burke for the first time. I had been tidying up for company, and my daughter had selected this book from the “free” pile at school, then decided she didn’t want it. She is a teenager, so instead of finding our charity box and putting it there, she dropped it on the upstairs banister. I scooped it up in irritation..then looked at it again. Flipped it over…read the blurb about the writer. This man is a rare winner of TWO Edgars. Really? I examined the title again; I hadn’t read any novels based on Hurricane Katrina, so why not give it a shot?
There are about a dozen writers whose novels I will read just because they wrote them. This man is now one of them. I appreciated his ability to develop characters, deal respectfully but realistically with the tragedy and travesty that was Hurricane Katrina (followed by Rita) and recognize it as such; and keep about a million plot threads going without ever dropping anything. In fact, the complexity of the character line-up–somewhere between a dozen and fifteen important people to remember, when I was on the verge of falling asleep for the night–gave me pause, but then this is #6 in a series, so it is possible that if I’d begun with #1, some of them would have been old friends by now, with just a few new ones introduced (and some disposed of before the story was over).
The setting was entirely unfamiliar to me; I have never spent time in the deep southern part of the USA, unless you count a trip with my family to Disney World, and have never set foot in Louisiana. Burke knew it well enough for both of us. His word work was sufficient to lay the canvas before me,and the devastation that was visited upon those who had previously been poor but stable was laid bare:
“They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and in nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.”
He gave due credit to those who, in an official capacity or otherwise, worked tirelessly for up to 72 hours on end to save the lives of the vulnerable who had been unable to get out in time, or whose parents had made the wrong choice for them. But he also tells the truth about the condition of the levee that was supposed to protect the residents of New Orleans, and how it had been permitted to deteriorate, when Federal funds were dropped by 50% without a moment’s notice or explanation, and permitted to deteriorate worst in the Black part of town. The narration spills out with disgust the “latent racism…that was already beginning to rear its head.”
Meanwhile, our hero, cop Dave Robicheaux, is trying to find out the whereabouts of a “junkie priest” who perished trying to evacuate his parishioners, but died in the flood waters when criminals stole his boat. He also keeps track of his best friend Clete, a bail bondsman and private detective who will follow him around if he is not included in the search, because some of the people Robicheaux is trying to locate are also bail skippers, and therefore also his bread and butter. Clete is an alcoholic and makes some really bad decisions; Robicheaux tirelessly tries to keep him under his wing and under control, all the while also trying to keep his wife and daughter safe from a local mercenary he’s investigating. The bad guy knows that Robicheaux’s family is his greatest treasure, and threatens them as an attempt to make him back off.
While parts of New Orleans appear untouched by Katrina, others have had their entire infrastructures destroyed, and there are virtually no navigable roads; the waters are treacherous as well, with downed power lines and debris just below the surface. In short, he has his work cut out for him.
Burke’s bad guys are complicated characters. All come from hideous family situations, and childhood has left its unalterable mark on them, but they are layered in the depths to which they will stoop in seeking wealth, power, or simply revenge. One is capable of property crime, violence, even rape, but finds he cannot look an unarmed man in the eye and shoot him; another can do it without a hitch in his heartbeat. The street smart voices I heard within these chapters felt real to me.
But the consistent thread which lies at the core of the story, of the storm, of everything that takes place between its covers, is one which the writer has hold of like a pit bull with a rat. He has his jaws around it and shakes it without ever letting loose of it, whatever other events weave in and out of his pages, the racism that caused the most harm to be brought upon those with the fewest resources, intentionally and maliciously. He will not let go of the racism that rules New Orleans.
“The original sympathy for the evacuees from New Orleans was incurring a strange transformation. Right wing talk shows abounded with callers viscerally enraged at the fact evacuees were receiving a onetime two-thousand-dollar payment to help them buy food and find lodging. The old southern nemesis was back,naked and raw and dripping–absolute hatred for the poorest of the poor.”
I can see why this guy has a pair of Edgars to bookend his mantel. He spins a compelling, absorbing tale, and the values and priorities that lay at the core of his work are ones I share and appreciate. It was in reading this novel that I became a die-hard James Lee Burke fan. I wrote this review before I had a blog on which to put it, and this book is a must-read for those that love good fiction, good mysteries, or that care about social justice.