Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) recommended I read The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke, speaking of both book and author in the reverential terms he (Dan) reserves for Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. It is no accident that I mention those two names because, based on The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke is right up there in their league. This is one of those books that transcends the hard-boiled-detective-mystery genre to become literature in its own right.
Mr. Burke has written some thirty-eight novels (if I’ve added them up correctly), twenty of which are Dave Robicheaux mysteries, Detective Dave Robicheaux being the central character in The Tin Roof Blowdown. The other characters include: double-tough disgraced former detective Clete Purcel, a man of excessive appetites, for food, for booze, for sex, for violence; the androgynous female police chief who is tougher than just about anyone except Clete; a mobster named Sidney Kovick who may or may not have cut a man into pieces with a chainsaw; a psychopath so spooky he makes the chainsaw gangster look benign; a black drug dealer and rapist who dreams of being something other than what he is; the city of New Orleans (the city Burke calls, “the Great Whore of Babylon”); memories—nightmares—of Viet Nam; and—as an ancillary character, if you can reduce such destruction and tragedy to merely ancillary—Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane ever to hit America, one of the five most destructive, and the second deadliest of all time.
Most mysteries are, by definition, plot-driven, and I usually have little interest in plot-driven books. Yes, there is a complex and multilayered plot where seemingly unrelated incidents swirl around each other and draw the characters together, but it is a sign of Burke’s skill as writer that I forgot entirely I was reading a mystery at all, becoming instead engrossed in the tribulations of the characters whose troubles are largely of their own making. Some of his most despicable villains become victims, victims on many layers: of their own poor choices; of cynical governments (city, state, and federal) that turn their backs on inner cities and then invoke those same inner cities during election campaigns with meaningless cries for change; of the drug culture that has filled the void left by those governments; of the old habits of racism; of the absence of hope or education or opportunity… In other words, Mr. Burke has captured the essence of the dark side of the American dream and done so in a page-turner.
One of the things that brings a book to life is the dialogue of its protagonists. The trick is to capture regional accents while making each character singular and discrete, and to do both of those things without making the book an unreadable phonetic study. Here too Mr. Burke excels. From the computerized automaton of the psychopath (“Hi. My name is Rodney. What’s yours?”) to the gallows humor of a New Orleans cop (Tee Boy was choking on his sandwich bread now, laughing so hard that tears were running down his cheeks. “Hey, kid, if you stole anything from Sidney Kovick, mail it to him COD from Alaska, then buy a gun and shoot yourself. With luck, he won’t find your grave.”) to the subtle inflections of the Ninth Ward (“I brought my brother to the hospital ‘cause somebody shot him t’rou the throat. A kid wit’ us was killed, too. I ain’t tried to run away. I come here for help. I missed my court appearance ‘cause I was sick. That’s all you got on me. You quit hitting me.”) Those things take a good ear and an instinctive feel for how far to go without making the reader give up.
But it is the richness of characterization that makes The Tin Roof Blowdown so memorable. These are all distinct individuals, the kinds of people you might meet—or hope very much you do not meet—in your hometown (especially if your hometown happens to be in Louisiana), but they are all real and, with the exception of the psychopath, understandable, believable, and very human. Psychopaths are neither understandable nor human, and it would be a waste of time for anyone to try and believe or believe in a psychopath.
A mysterious footnote: My copy of The Tin Roof Blowdown has a cover featuring a stylized jazz saxophone player against a background of a French Quarter house, done in the yellows and oranges of flames. It is the only cover I saw, either in the flesh or on the internet when I was ordering the book, and later when I was doing some research on James Lee Burke. That cover has now mysteriously disappeared on the internet, and the only image I could find is the one I have used. It is as if the other has been erased from both the internet and history itself. Clearly this a sign of some vast conspiracy between the NSA, CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, and Simon & Schuster. At least, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.