The Tin Roof Blowdown

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

James Lee Burke’s sixteenth novel in the Dave Robicheaux series opens as Hurricane Katrina churns its way through the Gulf of Mexico, homing in on its target of New Orleans. In The Tin Roof Blowdown, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux finds himself in the heart of the Hurricane Katrina disaster when his department is temporarily assigned to rescue and response duty in the Big Easy. Burke once again assembles a large cast of characters whose lives inevitably collide, causing chaos and death.

The story of Father Jude LeBlanc sets the novel in motion. A priest who has prostate cancer and is addicted to drugs, Jude serves the poorest and most desperate people in New Orleans, residents of the Ninth Ward. His greatest fear is that the shaking of his hands will cause him to drop the chalice during communion. Father Jude decides to stay with his parishioners in spite of repeated warnings that everyone should leave; the poorest of the poor have nowhere to go and no way to leave. When he finds himself trapped in a church attic full of people about to drown in the rising water, he heroically breaks out a window, finds a boat, and tries to help his flock escape. It is at this moment, however, that he encounters four young thugs. He does not give up his boat without a struggle; however, he sustains a blow to the head and presumably drowns.

The boat thieves, Andre Rochon, a kid named Kevin, and the Melancon brothers, Bertrand and Eddy, next appear as looters in a wealthy white neighborhood. They ply the flooded streets, looking for a darkened house to rob and destroy. Their troubles begin when they enter the house of Sidney Kovick and in their rampage find wads of money behind the walls. They also find a sack of diamonds. After destroying the interior of the house and stealing everything they can carry, they return to the boat, only to find themselves out of gas. Bertrand finds fuel in a carriage house belonging to Otis Baylor, an insurance adjuster, who has chosen to ride out the storm at his home along with his wife Melanie and daughter Thelma. The Baylor family can clearly see the looters with light provided by their larger generators, and, in a twist of fate, Thelma recognizes Eddy and Bertrand as the two men who raped her months earlier, after her senior prom. With their boat refueled, the young men cannot believe their good luck. They have more money than they have ever seen. Their luck immediately turns sour, however, when Eddy flicks a cigarette lighter, giving someone from the Baylor household a target. Gunshots ensue, killing Kevin immediately and simultaneously turning Eddy into a quadriplegic.

Bertrand Melancon’s troubles are only beginning. He does not realize that the diamonds he has stolen are blood diamonds and that flower shop owner Sidney Kovick is also a ruthless gangster, someone who is rumored to have cut up a neighbor with a chain saw in his basement. Even worse, Kovick has double-crossed other villains to obtain the stones, placing Bertrand in double jeopardy. Ironically, Kovick is a greater threat to Bertrand than the police. As a New Orleans policeman tells Bertrand, “Hey, kid. If you stole anything from Sidney Kovick, mail it to him COD from Alaska, then buy a gun and shoot yourself. With luck, he won’t find your grave.”

Burke’s portrayal of Bertrand Melancon is masterful. Bertrand is a serial rapist, a thief, and the murderer of a priest, the kind of lowlife that Burke uses to populate his books and for whom Dave generally can find little sympathy. Nonetheless, there is some moral ambiguity in Bertrand’s creation. Burke allows him to be penitent for his actions; Bertrand attempts to write a letter of apology to Thelma and her family for the crime he perpetrated on her. He believes that if he gives the family the blood diamonds that somehow he will be redeemed. He is a dreamer, trying to fantasize his way out of the terrible mess that is his life. He is a sick man, suffering from bleeding ulcers that will kill him even if Kovick’s goons do not find him. Last, he is a failure, never able to achieve what he sets out to do. It is not that Burke (or Dave) forgives him for the series of events he sets in motion;...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Boston Globe, August 13, 2007, p. C5.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 944 (July 20, 2007): 78.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 12 (June 15, 2007): 568.

Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 1, 2007): 72.

The New York Times 156 (July 23, 2007): B1-B7.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 21 (May 21, 2007): 32.

USA Today, August 2, 2007, p. D1.

The Washington Post, July 23, 2007, p. C3.