29 June 2008


Simon & Schuster, 2007, 373 pages, ISBN 978-1-4165-4848-5
A Dave Robicheaux Novel

New Iberia, the home of both author James Lee Burke, and his detective Dave Robicheaux, is just 200 km west of New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans at the end of August 2005, then people from lesser affected New Iberia were amongst the first on the scene.

Burke obviously feels very strongly about what happened to New Orleans both as a consequence of the hurricane, but also the human and physical degradation that he witnessed. He says New Orleans was a song that went under the waves... Category 5 hurricanes don't take prisoners... New Orleans was systematically destroyed and that destruction begin in the early 1980s.. one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.

It is against the background of what happened during and after hurricane Katrina that Burke sets THE TIN ROOF BLOW DOWN. The opening chapters introduce characters who run like threads through the rest of the book: Catholic priest Jude LeBlanc dying from cancer and a drug addict; Otis Baylor an insurance agent who loves his job and whose daughter Thelma has been raped by some black youths; Tom Claggart, Otis' neighbour, an export-import man; Clete Purcel, Dave Robicheaux's partner hunting for bail skips and drug pushers; the Melancon brothers and Andre Rochon, low life flotsam of New Orleans, connected to and symbolic of an underworld that thrives.

As Hurricane Katrina advances on New Orleans, those who can take heed official warnings and evacuate or move into public buildings such as churches, the Convention Center and the Superdome. Those who can't are at the mercy of the rising waters from the tidal surge. And the low life turn to looting. The streets in every town in south west Louisiana become clogged with evacuation traffic seeking temporary shelter. No-one is prepared for the destructive force, five times greater than the bomb that hit Hiroshima, that strikes New Orleans.

Dave Robicheaux begins to search for his friend Jude Le Blanc who appears to have disappeared while assisting people trapped in the attic of St. Mary Magdalene in the Lower Nine. Otis Baylor lives in uptown New Orleans and although his street is flooded, his house is on higher ground and is powered by its own generators. Four young black men in a boat are systematically working their way up his street entering the unoccupied houses and looting them. The looters leave and the crisis seems averted. The next day the boat comes back and someone is killed. The Otis Baylor case becomes just one of a number of investigations that Dave and Clete pursue.

I did have a problem early in my reading of THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN with the amount of information that Burke was pumping out. Even as the plot developed it did make it difficult to distinguish what is now historical fact from crime fiction. The dilemma diminished as I read on, but for the first 100 pages or so I kept thinking of Truman Capote's "fictionalised facts" - hence yesterday's blog posting.

My main problem probably stemmed from the fact that I haven't read all the Dave Robicheaux series, in fact very few, so this novel was almost a stand-alone read. While the plot is complete in itself, there is back-story I have missed. A second problem was the consequence of my poor knowledge of US geography: that I didn't have a vision of where New Iberia is in relation to New Orleans.

However James Lee Burke does a pretty good job of bridging the story of what he wanted to say about Hurricane Katrina with elements of a thriller. I think perhaps the thriller bit didn't work as well as he wanted, but followers of Dave Robicheaux will no doubt have read of his role in the re-establishment of law and order in post-hurricane New Orleans with interest.

I visited New Orleans over 35 years ago and it's sad to think that what I saw then has gone.

My rating: 4.3

Dave Robicheaux's New Iberia (map)
James Lee Burke's website
James Lee Burke- The Tin Roof Blow Down
Wikipedia Biography
The Man Behind Dave Rochibeaux

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