Written by James Lee Burke — This is the 19th book featuring the Louisiana detective Dave ‘Streak’ Robicheux, and it is due for release on 22 November. Many of the previous books have been bestsellers, and the sixth in the series was filmed as In the Electric Mist in 2008, with Tommy Lee Jones playing Robicheux. All the books are set in the tiny city of New Iberia, near Lafayette, Louisiana.
Fans of the author will not be disappointed with Creole Belle. All the familiar elements from previous stories are here. We have the ever-present physical atmosphere, the heat and humidity, the exotic vegetation and the electric storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. The ghosts of the past are never very far away either, whether they are the spirits of Confederate soldiers, sadistic slave owners, or the clatter of a phantom paddle steamer hidden in the mist. Burke has a very distinct view of the way the area has been pillaged by corporate greed, and how the beautiful, primeval landscape has been brought to the brink of destruction by the petrochemical industry.
Robicheux is recovering in hospital from serious wounds sustained in an earlier adventure, and he is visited by a young Creole singer, Tee Jolie Melton. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, the only tangible reminder of her visit is an iPod. When Robicheux returns home, he finds that Tee Jolie has not been seen for months, and there are songs on the iPod that only he can hear. As he and his family question his sanity, his close friend Clete Purcel finds himself drawn into a violent confrontation with low level mafioso, and a mysterious assassin called Caruso.
Purcel is more central to the narrative in this book than in any previous story. He is an overweight, psychotic and alcoholic ex-cop with an alarming talent for violence, but a very clear and unambiguous moral compass. He is devoted to Robicheux, but their relationship is strained when Purcel discovers that Caruso may actually be his long-lost daughter, Gretchen. The gruesome discovery of Tee Jolie’s sister washed up in a bayou, encased in a block of ice, brings the three of them together in a distrustful but determined alliance against a rich local family who may have links to a Nazi past, and a shameful cover-up of responsibility for the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The action is virtually constant and the villains are grotesque, but not to the point of parody. Burke vividly makes the point that the real commissioners of death are the smoothly manicured corporate types who give the orders, and then depart in their jets. The mayhem is leavened by affectionate descriptions of how Purcel and his daughter try to come to terms with both their past and their future. Robicheux’s family are as warmly portrayed as ever, and when they are put in peril, Robicheux’s vengeance makes the action in Taken seem like something from Enid Blyton in comparison.
This is one of the longest and most complex of the Dave Robicheux stories, and it has an elegiac quality. At the end of the previous book, A Glass Rainbow, Robicheux and Purcel barely escaped with their lives. As the two men age, and their powers diminish, it seems only a matter of time before the ever more ingenious forces of corporate and criminal greed must finally overwhelm them. Creole Belle is wonderfully written, with deep compassion and a heartbreaking clarity. The ambiguities of how good men must resort to questionable methods to combat intense evil have never been described better. It is hard to compare books from such a long series, but this may be the best yet.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars