Burke again captures the essence of the Bayou
In Creole Belle (ISBN 978-1-4516-4813-3, $27.99), novelist James Lee Burke returns to a territory he now owns in the literary sense: New Orleans, the Gulf, and Southern Louisiana. Dave Robicheaux, ex-drunk, ex-member of the Big Easy’s police department, returns to a world of murder, mayhem, money, and mobsters. He and his best friend and former police partner — the hard-drinking, stand-up private detective Clete Purcel — find themselves battling a host of underworld figures, ranging from low-life sociopaths out to collect a debt from Purcel to corporate villains involved in fraud, kidnapping, torture, and murder.
Creole Belle opens with Robicheaux in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound received when he and Purcel had warred with another gang of criminals. The morphine given to Robicheaux erases the boundary between reality and hallucination, so that Robicheaux for a while has trouble distinguishing the two.
As he returns to normalcy, however, he realizes that the message he received in the hospital from a young friend, the singer Tee Jolie, is not a product of the drug: she is in danger of death, and her disappearance has something to do with a criminal conspiracy involving the oil spill in the Gulf and the ambitions of an elderly ex-Nazi. As Robicheaux and Purcel unwittingly become ensnared in a vast web of criminal plots and activities, each man finds that he has more at stake than his own life. Robicheaux’s daughter, Alafair, an honors law school graduate turned novelist, and Clete Purcel’s long-absent murderous daughter, Gretchen, have become involved with some of the members of this conspiracy, giving the two friends a more urgent reason to push back hard against the bad guys.
Like other books in the genre of action and suspense, and like the other 18 Dave Robicheaux novels, Creole Belle is formulaic in its plot and its characters. As in Burke’s previous novels, corporations and millionaires are nearly always wicked. (His take on the rich — “many of them are dull-witted and boring. Their tastes are often superficial, their interests vain and self-centered” — is unintentionally humorous, as Burke himself with his numerous bestsellers surely inhabits the very class he slams here). There is no such thing as a good conservative.
Though there are some good religious people — Robicheaux’s wife Mollie is an ex-nun — most ministers are charlatans out to make a fast buck. Women are generally saints; Gretchen, for example, is a killer, but we are asked to forgive her murders because she suffered abuse in her childhood, whereas other killers in this novel are condemned outright, though they too underwent awful ordeals as children. Purcel and Robicheaux leave a litter of bodies behind them in Creole Belle, as in the other books. Finally, readers might well wonder what natives of New Orleans might think of these stories, since in each of them nearly everyone living along the Gulf Coast displays psychopathic tendencies toward murder, racism, arson, theft and larceny.
Notwithstanding these flaws, there are reasons why I and other readers greet each new excursion into Robicheaux territory with fervent enthusiasm. For one thing, Burke’s descriptions sweep the reader into New Orleans and the Bayou region. When you read one of his Robicheaux novels, you come away with the taste of beignets and French coffee in your mouth; you know how the mist looks over the rivers and streams at dawn in the bayou; you feel the wet beery coolness of a crummy bar in the French Quarter on a blazing hot August afternoon. Like Pat Conroy, who has the same gift for recreating the geography and sense of a place — in his case, Charleston and the South Carolina low country — Burke puts blood and breath into the territory he has staked out. Burke accomplishes what many writers only dream of: through paper and words he brings alive a landscape and its people.
Moreover, Burke isn’t afraid to slow the fast-paced action of his novels and have Robicheaux engage in moral speculation whenever the occasion demands. Some writers of suspense novels would hesitate to include such high-minded discussions, partly for fear of slowing down the pace of the story, partly from a lack of guts in revealing too much of themselves. In Creole Belle in particular, more than 500 pages in length, Burke doesn’t hesitate to express through Robicheaux moral outrage and the struggle of the human person to discover the right path for living. Throughout Creole Belle, Robicheaux, an alcoholic who no longer drinks, a man with a trouble and violent past, raises questions about right and wrong, about justice, about wisdom, prudence, and courage. His moral inventory encourages us as readers to examine our own experiences through the lens of these ancient virtues. Though some of his prose seems more high rhetoric than any real statement of truth, Burke still manages to make us ponder questions which are missing in the novels of most of his fellow suspense writers.
Finally, Burke’s novels offer us confirmation of Faulkner’s famous dictum — “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” His Louisiana territory is haunted by the ghosts of slaves, Creoles, plantation owners, Confederate soldiers, redneck oil men, priests and preachers, Southern women with hearts of gold and spines of steel. The pensive, melancholic Robicheaux is acutely aware of these spirits and the power of history. Through him Burke reminds us again and again that the hand of the past is anything but dead, and that we all, like Dave Robicheaux, carry our own ghosts inside ourselves.
Creole Belle by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 544