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THE VOICE OF NEW ORLEANS

But even James Lee Burke, who lives and breathes Louisiana, struggled to find the right words after the levees broke.

James Lee Burke has published more than two dozen novels, 15 of them his acclaimed series about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux.

But Burke says the 16th Robicheaux book, The Tin Roof Blowdown, published this month, was "a very hard book to write."

Robicheaux's beat is New Orleans, New Iberia and the bayous and countryside that surround them. When Burke speaks by phone from his home in Montana, Louisiana echoes in his voice as well - he grew up there and still lives in New Iberia, west of New Orleans, part of the year.

Among novelists writing about New Orleans today, Burke is perhaps the best at capturing the city's unique culture, its charm and violence, its corruption and seduction.

The Tin Roof Blowdown is the first Robicheaux novel since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the city. "I didn't think I could write about it," Burke says. "I was depressed for a very long time."

He wasn't there when the storm hit and the levees broke, drowning many neighborhoods. But the aftermath was overwhelming. "Nothing you can say can convey to people who haven't seen it how pervasive the destruction is," he says. "I'm 70, and I've never seen anything like it."

He isn't just talking about wind and water damage. The lack of response from the government has been just as traumatic: "I think it will remain the worst domestic disgrace in American history."

So when he wrote The Tin Roof Blowdown, he wanted its story to offer insight into that tragedy. "In my view of art, for a story to be any good, it has to be a microcosm of a larger story."

The book's early chapters capture the surreal horror of the hurricane and floods, then Robicheaux becomes involved in several cases that grow out of the lawless days that follow.

Robicheaux is a fascinating and complex character, always trying to reconcile his deep faith and love of family with his rage, propensity to violence and tenuous hold on sobriety. "Robicheaux is the blue-collar knight errant," his creator says.

Burke began his writing career as a literary novelist, publishing three books in the 1960s and '70s. Then he had a 13-year dry streak. "It was like being rich twice and going broke three times."

His novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie is legendary for receiving 111 rejections from publishers before being printed in 1986.

The turning point, Burke says, was when he wrote The Neon Rain, the first Robicheaux book.

"I've never changed what I've done. I always write about the same people, the same places, the same ideas. The difference was in The Neon Rain I chose to use a first person narrator who was a police officer.

"As soon as you have a cop narrating a story, it's a crime novel."

And crime novels sell. Burke says, "If my work had not been put in that category, I'd have a morning paper route. Nobody would touch me with a dung fork. So I have no complaint."

He's been writing full time since 1990, after only 34 years in the business, he says with a laugh. In addition to the Robicheaux books, he has written four novels about former Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland, plus several other novels and collections of short stories, the most recent of which, Jesus Out to Sea, was released in June.

Burke and his wife, Pearl, have been married for 47 years and have four children and four grandchildren. Their youngest daughter, Alafair Burke, is a novelist also; her fourth book, Dead Connection, was just published.

Robicheaux fans know that Dave also has a daughter named Alafair - and in The Tin Roof Blowdown she's writing a novel. "Alafair Robicheaux is a great character," Burke says. "Alafair Burke says, 'That is not me.' "

Burke recently worked on the script of a movie now in production based on one of the best of the Robicheaux books, In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead.

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, In the Electric Mist was filmed on location in Louisiana, with Tommy Lee Jones starring as Robicheaux. "He's great," Burke says. "The whole cast is great. Half the planet is in this film.

"I have a director's chair with my name on it in the film. My one movie role, and I'm not there." Burke lets out a roar of laughter. "Humility has always found me of its own accord."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

The Tin Roof Blowdown

By James Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $26

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