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Book Review

Murder, neglect are at core of tale set in New Orleans

The Tin Roof Blowdown
By James Lee Burke
Simon and Schuster, 384 pp., $26

Murder rarely takes a back seat in a James Lee Burke mystery. Protagonists like his Dave Robicheaux may be damaged, struggling with the scars of his own violent past and his alcoholism, but they're profoundly moral. However, in Burke's latest crime fiction outing -- his 16th with the Cajun Detective Robicheaux -- the act of taking one human life is nearly overshadowed by a larger crime: the systematic neglect of New Orleans that culminated in the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. The result is a masterful book, one of the best depictions of the tragedy in print, and in some ways as difficult to read as Times Picayune columnist Chris Rose's nonfiction collection, "1 Dead in Attic."

The murder at the core of "The Tin Roof Blowdown" is as morally ambiguous as Burke can make it. In the flooding following the hurricane, African-American youths are looting a white neighborhood. Some of the inhabitants are blatantly racist, but at least one, Otis Baylor, has worked hard to overcome his prejudiced past, an effort complicated by the fact that his daughter was raped and tortured by three African-Americans. He believes in justice and the law. But by the time the looters arrive next door in a stolen boat, the authorities are not an option. Local police have already been overwhelmed, and, to complicate matters further, the daughter may recognize two of the looters as her attackers. When one looter ends up dead, another maimed, many of those left in power would like to write off the crime as rough justice.

But Robicheaux, on loan from his rural parish, cannot let murder go, no matter what the provocation. As he delves into the crime, he finds further complications. The looters may have murdered an old friend: a junkie priest, a good, if sick man "whose only trepidation in life was his fear that the uncontrollable shaking in his hands would cause him to drop the chalice while he was giving Communion." Nothing is simple, but Robicheaux risks his own family's safety to find justice, and aid the surviving, repentant looter, in a world gone mad.

Burke is in a perfect position to write about the decline of "the city that care forgot." A native of the Gulf Coast, he divides his time between Louisiana and Montana, where he sets his Billy Bob Holland series. In the epilogue to this mystery, he cites "destruction that began in the early 1980s with the deliberate reduction by half of federal funding to the city," culminating in "an American city turned into Baghdad." The cause is personal, but not sanctimonious. He weaves his thoughts on the culpability of government, business, and individuals into the complex personalities and plot twists here.

Not all of this book is new: Fans may recognize some of the scenes from his recently released collection of short stories, "Jesus Out to Sea." Read back to back, these two books show an artist at work, and don't detract from either. Other lines define recurring characters. Robicheaux's brutish friend Clete Purcell has long called his hometown "the Big Sleazy." When he drops that line, it's heartbreaking -- a sign that the city may really be dead. But the all-purpose insult that someone "must have a mother who was inseminated by leakage from a colostomy bag" has shown up in too many characters' mouths in too many books to be distinctive.

As those examples illustrate, Burke is a distinctive and colorful writer who has developed his own style of Southern gothic noir. His over-the-top descriptions can get overheated. However, at its best, as it often is here, this dense, descriptive language is hypnotic, conjuring atmosphere as much as plot. At times, his imagery goes so far as to push into magic realism; drowned bodies are seen as lights under the water. But Burke's love for his subject grounds even the most far-flung of metaphors in the water-logged earth of Louisiana.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cattery Row."