Like his tough protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke is a man of passionate temper. His contemptuous anger over the lacklustre response of George W Bush to the devastation of Burke’s beloved New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was incorporated into his writing. That rage is back again.
This time, it’s the BP oil spill in the Gulf, as destruction threatens the bayous. Creole Belle is written on the grandest scale. And, typically for Burke, so much is crammed into this sprawling panoply that the narrative is constantly in danger of bursting at the seams. Burke aficionados, however, look for precisely the kind of overwrought experience we are served here.
Robicheaux is languishing in a New Orleans clinic, shot full of morphine and attempting to recover from gunshot wounds, when he is visited by a seductive young blues singer, Tee Jolie Melton. She gives him an iPod full of music he likes and tells him about an oil rig endangered by defective elements. Dave begins to wonder whether her visit was some kind of phantasmagoric morphine experience, but a fuse has been lit. Like many of the hard-boiled characters who stalk the pages of Burke’s novels, Dave is sentimental about many things – particularly his youth on the once-unspoiled Gulf of Mexico.
There are not many crime writers about whom one might invoke the name of Zola for comparison, but Burke is very much in that territory. His stamping ground is the Gulf Coast, and one of the great strengths of his work has always been the atmospheric background of New Orleans and the bayous. His big, baggy novels are always about much more than the mechanics of the detective plot; his real subject, like the French master, is the human condition, seen in every striation of society.
Some may feel that with Creole Belle he has over-egged the pudding: not just the BP oil spill, but white slavery, Nazi war criminals, the arms trade and the reach of the American underworld. But those on his wavelength will see this as a more powerful and ambitious novel about America than most written today – and certainly more relevant than Tom Wolfe’s latest effort.