This somewhat-dissenting view on The Tin Roof Blowdown never appeared in Crime Time's now-defunct print edition, and I've rewritten it somewhat after having visiting New Orleans last fall, which reinforced my original feelings about the book....
When it appeared, The Tin Roof Blowdown was greeted as perhaps Burke’s ‘best-ever’, and you can see why: the most poetic of crime writers takes on the greatest natural and man-made disaster of the new century, Hurricane Katrina. Dave Robichaux investigates the shooting of looters in the nicer sections of New Orleans during the big storm, and the disappearance of a junkie-priest from the darker side of the Big Easy. Given that Dave is prone to long internal monologues and musings, and that his life seems dedicated to re-visiting the miseries of the Vietnam War, the rest of his personal history, and the dark past of the American South, and given that a hurricane tends to throw up lots of debris, one could anticipate that this might prove a daunting task for Dave. And in the end it does for Burke as well.
The title, with its allusion to Tennessee Williams, suggests a certain decadence, a certain amount of decay, of impotence in the face of reality. But the novel stops short of examining these hard questions. Partly because there is too much about this book that not only recalls Dave’s previous speculations, but also his old criminal nemeses. Not content with the immediate crime, the shooting of looters, which forms the moral core of the story, nor with the bigger questions of nature's destruction and the political malfeasance which helped it on its way, Burke again draw on the appearance of a figure whose almost supernatural evil appears to exist primarily to taunt Dave with temptation. Perhaps he figures he has to do this again in order to have a villain of Robicheaux-worthy proportions, but really, you'd think George Bush and his feeble FEMA guys were evil enough for that. And that really is a shame, because the novel, at heart, wants to be the story of the hard-working man, apparently trying to defend his home, finding himself unexpectedly and unwarrantedly threatened by nature itself, and that is the dilemma which would make it most compelling. That and a little subtle insight into the social politics of race. Instead, most of what we get is a trip through familiar Louisiana Robicheaux territory, with the usual familiar Clete Purcell sideshow.
If I sound harsh, it is the harshness of disappointment, because I did indeed expect much more from Burke, whose previous Robicheaux, Pegasus Descending was one of his best (see my review in Crime Time 50). But here the material, threatening to overwhelm him, seems to have gotten subsumed into some of Dave’s obsessions, and he wanted Dave's obsessions to rise to the fore. Thus every time he begins to vent against the politics which left New Orleans more than usually unprotected against the storm, or slowed aid to the largely black, poor, and Democrat-voting city, he quickly directs the vented steam into Dave's more personal, directions. And when he gets into the most compelling of Dave's own stories, he again veers away, into the kind of spooky violence that has marked late Robichaux, venturing almost into John Connolly territory. There are large parts of the novel that are, in fact, McGuffins, and the reality is a hurricane is simply too big and too strong to be relegated to acting as a McGuffin.
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke,
Orion, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 9780752889160