Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: "Creole Belle" by James Lee Burke

In 1990, I read my first James Lee Burke book, one of the early novels in his Dave Robicheaux series, Black Cherry Blues. He hooked me immediately, and I quickly read the other books in the series he had written to date.

Twenty-two years later, I've read 27 of Burke's books—the entirety of three series (Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and Hackberry Holland)—as well as several of his older stand-alone novels. I just devoured his 19th Dave Robicheaux novel, Creole Belle, and I can honestly say that it not only was one of Burke's best, but it was an absolutely phenomenal book, poetic, dark, elegiacal, and full of evocative imagery and complex, well-drawn characters.

As the book begins, New Iberia Deputy Sheriff Dave Robicheaux is in the hospital recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound, and his growing dependence on morphine to ease his pain is threatening to shatter his years of troubled sobriety. One night in the hospital he is visited by Creole singer Tee Jolie Melton, who talks to him about her problems, and leaves him an iPod with some Cajun and Creole songs he likes. The problem is, only Dave can hear the songs, and Tee Jolie allegedly disappeared several weeks before, so no one (including Dave) can believe she actually came to the hospital.

When Tee Jolie's younger sister, Blue, washes up dead floating in a block of ice, Dave and his best friend, ex-policeman Clete Purcel, try to find some answers. Along the way they encounter many people who are not what they seem, and discover evil that lurks far deeper than they ever imagined. And Clete comes face to face with his illegitimate daughter, Gretchen, who may or may not be a contract killer. Dave and Clete, "the Bobbsey Twins from homicide," must outwit and outfight some of James Lee Burke's most twisted villains while battling their own mortality, regret, and inner demons, and protecting those closest to them.

If you've never read anything by James Lee Burke, I'd encourage you to do so. Burke's heroes are so flawed, and carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, but have a true (if not sometimes skewed) sense of right and wrong. His ability to paint a scene in his beloved Louisiana can bring that picture to your mind and make you think about it long after. Burke has been one of my favorite authors for nearly 20 years, and having met him once at a book signing, he's an incredibly nice, self-effacing man. And at 76, he is at the top of his form with Creole Belle, and I only hope he continues sharing his talent for years to come.

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