- - Friday, September 28, 2012

By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 544 pages

In James Lee Burke’s previous Dave Robicheaux crime thriller, “The Glass Rainbow,” the Cajun detective from the New Iberia, La., Sheriff’s Department ended up struck in the back in a bayou shootout with the bad guys.

In Mr. Burke’s latest novel, “Creole Belle,” the 19th in the Dave Robicheaux series, Robicheaux is in a hospital in New Orleans recovering from the gunshot wound.

He is administered morphine, which is good for the pain but not necessarily good overall, as Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic with a history of depression and violence.

Robicheaux is visited in his hospital room after visiting hours by a young woman, a barroom singer named Tee Jolie Melton. She brought him his favorite soft drink, a Dr Pepper with a lime slice. But he is not sure she is real, as he has been having morphine dreams, night and day, and in these dreams he is visited by people long dead, including Confederate soldiers.

Mr. Burke writes: “Her eyes were blue-green, her hair long and mahogany-colored with twists of gold in it that were bright as buttercups. She was part Indian and part Cajun and part black and belonged to that ethnic group we call Creoles, although the term is a misnomer.”

She also gave Robicheaux an iPod filled with music, including a classic song called “My Creole Belle.”

He is later visited by his former New Orleans Police Department homicide partner, a fellow Vietnam War veteran named Clete Purcel. A private detective who tends to become involved with Robicheaux’s cases and is often the root cause of violent situations, Purcel was also recovering from wounds received in the bayou shootout. Purcel informs Robicheaux that Tee Jolie Melton could not have had been a late visitor, as the hospital was locked up tight after visiting hours and he heard that she and her sister were missing.

Purcel, a big man who resembles actor John Goodman, drank heavily and ate heartily. He wears a porkpie hat over his short blond hair and colorful Hawaiian shirts over his girth. Despite his looks and age, Purcel manages to have romantic entanglements with beautiful women, even though some of them are psychotic and crooked.

Purcel is despised equally by the New Orleans police and mob. He also was the bane of insurance companies. Purcel destroyed massive amounts of property, including a gangster’s house that he demolished using an earth-grader.

Robicheaux, the novel’s narrator, describes Purcel: “An average day in the life of Clete Purcel was akin to an asteroid bouncing through Levittown. Child molesters, pimps, dope dealers, and men who abused women got no slack and feared him as they would the wrath of God. But Clete’s role as the merry prankster and classical trickster of folklore had a price tag. A succubus lived in his breast and gave him no respite. He had carried it with him from the Irish Channel to New Orleans to Vietnam and to the brothels of Bangkok and Cherry Alley in Tokyo and back home to New Orleans. In Clete’s mind, he was not worthy of a good woman’s love; nor did he measure up in the eyes of his alcoholic father, a milkman who took out his anger and low self-esteem on his confused and suffering firstborn son.”

When Robicheaux is released from the hospital, he and Purcel — these two damaged and flawed modern avenging knights — investigate Tee Jolie Melon’s disappearance and the murder of her sister, discovered naked in a block of ice floating in the Gulf.

The case intertwines with Purcel’s personal problems. He is being extorted by two psychopathic New Orleans hoods over a questionable old debt, and he has discovered that he has an adult daughter who may be a contract killer.

The story leads to the kind of bad guys Robicheaux and Purcel encountered in the previous novel as well as those before it in the series: rich, powerful, corrupt and decadent patricians, greedy, crooked and heartless corporate executives, and violent, sociopathic, low-life criminals. Their collective crimes range from art fraud to white slavery and from Nazi war crimes to murder.

Mr. Burke once again makes the Louisiana region come alive in his vivid descriptions of the land, the sea, the weather, and the people, music and food — especially the food.

Hurricane Katrina served as a sociopolitical backdrop to “The Glass Rainbow” and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill serves that purpose in this novel. I don’t subscribe to all of Robicheaux’s stated liberal sensibilities (which echo author Burke), but my differing views did not put me off this complex and well-written crime thriller. Dave Robicheaux is a fine man and character and James Lee Burke is a fine writer.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime@aol.com.

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