Saturday, April 21, 2018
Books

Review: A haunting recovery for Dave Robicheaux in 'Creole Belle' by James Lee Burke

T

he tide is rising in Bayou Teche, the night wind tossing the banana trees, the shadows pooling under the moss-draped oaks, and somewhere out in the dark of southern Louisiana, someone is doing a bad, bad thing. • That puts you square in the dark heart of Dave Robicheaux's territory, a world of aching natural beauty and unspeakable human corruption that is the creation of master crime fiction writer James Lee Burke. If, like me, you can't resist a trip there, get yourself a copy of his new book, Creole Belle, and plan to be kept awake for a few nights.

Creole Belle is first a resurrection tale. At the end of the last Robicheaux novel, The Glass Rainbow, Dave, a detective in the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department, lay dying in his own yard, shot through the chest and about to surrender to a vision of a paddlewheel steamboat on the Teche bearing his smiling parents and other ghosts.

For better or worse, he was pulled back by his best friend and biggest headache, Clete Purcell. Long ago, both freshly back from Vietnam, they walked a beat together as cops in New Orleans and formed a warriors' bond unbroken by Clete's epic bad behavior as a brawler, philanderer, drunk and private investigator with an impaired sense of boundaries.

As Creole Belle opens, Dave is recuperating in a New Orleans hospital. His considerable physical pain is muffled by morphine — a perilous situation for an alcoholic who has been in AA and off the sauce for decades.

Already floating his way through what he recognizes as hallucinations, Dave is not surprised to get a visit in the middle of the night from a friend, a lovely young woman named Tee Jolie Melton. She's a rising star on the Cajun music scene and a sweet person, but she tells him she's got a new man who mingles with powerful people — and that she may know some things it's dangerous to know.

"Are you really here?" he asks her. She doesn't answer, but she leaves with him with an iPod loaded with music he loves, including three of her own songs. The odd thing: Dave can hear those three songs, but no one else can find them on the iPod's playlist. And Tee Jolie's family hasn't seen her in weeks.

A few weeks later, Dave is back at work when he gets called to a homicide scene in another parish. A young woman's body has washed up, frozen inside a bathtub-sized block of ice. Her name is Blue Melton, and she's Tee Jolie's younger sister.

The case falls to Dave because Blue was abducted in his jurisdiction. Tracking her killer (and finding out whether Tee Jolie is alive) isn't all that's on his mind. Thanks to their near-death experience in The Glass Rainbow, both he and Clete are suffering more intensely than usual from the post-traumatic stress disorder they've battled since Vietnam. For Dave, it manifests as a continuation of the hallucinatory effect of the morphine (even though he's no longer taking it) that makes him fear for his sanity. For Clete, it's ever more intense bursts of drinking and violence: "Sometimes I feel like I've got a dragon walking around in my chest."

As if Clete's life weren't already complicated enough, his long-lost daughter has turned up. He didn't know that Gretchen, whom he fathered during a fling with a junkie stripper in Miami some 30 years ago, existed until she was a teenager and had already run away from home. He was never able to find her — but now she's in New Orleans, and she may be a very uncomfortable kind of chip off the old block.

Gretchen's childhood was filled with horrible sexual abuse by her mother's boyfriends, and that's just one example of a theme of rape — of children, of women, of nature — that flows through this book; in its background always are the immeasurable black clouds flowing from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and joining Dave's other ghosts to haunt his dreams.

Relationships between fathers and daughters are another theme: Clete's with Gretchen; Dave's with his grown daughter, Alafair, as she tries to establish herself as a novelist (Burke's daughter, Alafair Burke, is a successful crime writer); and that of a bitterly racist former cop, Jesse Leboeuf, with his glamorously beautiful, manipulative daughter, Varina (named for Robert E. Lee's wife).

Varina is the link to the Dupree family, outsiders with a great deal of money who have moved into an old plantation house near New Iberia. She is in the process of divorcing Pierre Dupree, a painter with little talent but too much charm; one of his paintings looks to Dave a lot like Tee Jolie. The family patriarch, Alexis Dupree, claims to be a survivor of the Ravensbruck concentration camp but may have a more complicated relationship to the Nazis.

From those threads Burke weaves a rich example of his trademark bayou noir. Filled with cruelty and valor, greed and sacrifice, and surprises of the worst and best kind, Creole Belle is a dark but irresistible cruise.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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