Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke; and The Lost Ones, by Ace Atkins

Southern Crooking: Creole Belle and The Lost Ones

A few years ago on an author’s panel at Gemini Ink, I recommended a new James Lee Burke novel as one of my guilty pleasures. I could see the rolling eyeballs and upturned noses among some of my colleagues, but out in the audience there were plenty of approving smiles. No need for division, though, because in his steady exploration of the flawed and tormented lives of New Iberia deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux and wingman Clete Purcel, Burke has created a compelling, morally complex world sufficient to absolve any guilt, other than the pleasurable kind. There’s a good reason our cultural fascination with the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, black flag pirates, swashbucklers, Japanese rodin and just about any outlaw-hero imaginable leads to the Bayou Teche and the hardboiled Big Mon.

Creole Belle is 19th in the Robicheaux series, including two that became decent-enough movies. While some of his other character-driven works, such as Feast Day of Fools, which uses Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland as the Robicheauxvian (Robichavian?) protagonist, are also good reads, Burke’s real stuff comes from the demimonde of southern Louisiana.

The nastiness is as vile as it’s ever been, ignited by the dreamlike appearance of Tee Jolie Melton, a missing Creole singer who mysteriously drops in as Dave is hospitalized on morphine with gunshot wounds (inflicted in The Neon Rain). His subsequent obsession with finding her, and then her murdered sister, Blue, pushes the recovering drunk, ex-New Orleans cop ever deeper into the usual rings of the Inferno. There he encounters a former Nazi death-camp guard, a wealthy family of crooked sadists, a remote Gulf island used as a medieval torture chamber, and corporate coverups directly tied to a devastating offshore oil-rig blowout. The odds are long, and Dave knows the game is always rigged:

The people who occupy the underside of society are dog food. Slumlords, zoning board members on a pad, porn vendors, and industrial polluters usually skate. Rich men don’t go to the injection table, and nobody worries when worker ants get stepped on.

Clete plays a bigger role than usual, as the violet-eyed daughter he lost track of years ago turns up, having toughed out a horrible childhood by learning to become a freelance assassin frequently employed by the mob. Clete’s emotional numbness, made even worse by self-medication and recurring nightmares about his tour in Vietnam — same as with Dave — turns his efforts to reconnect into a series of missteps as touching as they are destructive.

Both Clete and Dave always seem trapped by what Dave’s long-suffering wife, Molly, calls his “great weakness.” She tells him, “You’re willing to love people who are corrupt to the core. You turn them into something they’re not and we pay the price for it.” Dave owns up, but says his mistakes come from more than a weakness. They are a result of his own “arrogance.” It’s not a left-handed compliment.

Dave’s twisted quixotic path intertwines with Clete’s for better and worse, mostly the latter. Eventually they prevail: shot, battered and barely surviving. It’s an addictive read, like watching an HBO series that you don’t really want to end even though you have to excuse some missteps, such as too-long digressions into 12-step psychology. Dave’s actions and interactions illuminate his inner demons well enough.

But narrative nuance isn’t really why readers return to these relentlessly bleak quests for redemption. It is to bear witness: to human failure, human weakness, human depravity and human suffering. But also to human valor, human sacrifice, human triumph. All playing out at 33 rpm on a scratchy vinyl of good versus evil in 80-percent humidity under moss-draped cypress. If you don’t believe in good and evil, coexistent, ever at war within the human spirit, you probably won’t care much for Burke. He probably doesn’t mind.

Neither does Robicheaux, trying in the final chapters to make sense of what he, Clete and everyone he cares about have been put through once again:

Saint Paul said there may be angels living among us, and this may have been the bunch he was writing about. If so, I think I have known a few of them. Regardless, it’s a fine thing to belong to a private club based on rejection and difference. I’ll go a step further. I believe excoriation is the true measure of our merit.


The depths to which human nature can descend mark another, perhaps less soul-darkening summer read in Ace Atkins’ The Lost Ones, which marks the return of former Army Ranger Quinn Colson, now a sheriff in Tibbehah County, Mississippi. Like Burke’s law officers, Colson is an imperfect man trying to do better in a corrupt world that can find its way into whatever part of America it chooses. In this case it’s moving into the South via a Mexican drug cartel with ties to a murderously abusive baby-peddling racket. One of Colson’s high-school friends, a Gulf War vet trying to stay alive and sane, becomes the link to both operations by selling illegal assault weapons to a beautiful Mexican woman who may or may not be wrong.

While the blues historian/investigator of Atkins' Nick Travers series may have a more unique premise, his law-and-disorder platforms’ best licks always come in a close look at the hard side of the New Deep South, and of the people who try to make sense of living there:

Lillie and Quinn followed 78 until it turned into Lamar Avenue in south Memphis, running through all those warehouses and big-rig garages, cheap motels for truckers to sleep, and barbecue joints to grab a sandwich, or western-wear shops for some new cowboy boots. The road soon turned into a clustered section of beauty parlors and pawnshops, used-car dealerships, and storefront churches. The Stonewall Jackson Motel was a half mile off the I-240 loop, tired and haggard and having seen its best days when Ike had been president. There had been a pool at one point, but it had been filed in, with thick weeds growing in the center. The motel was one story and a deep U shape. Lots of transient cars with out-of-state license plates littered the parking lot, probably laborers cutting through town. The sign outside the small registration lobby boasted FREE HBO.

This is not the “true grit” of Charles Portis’ famous tale of revenge in the Old West; rather the mundane grit of disposability that truly incubates the evils of today, and informs the writers who try to warn us through tales of morality and mortality. Not that we listen.

Rod Davis is the author of PEN/Southwest award-winning Corina’s Way and of American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. He taught a course in detective and spy fiction at UT-Austin.

Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke, published by Simon & Schuster (2012), is available here.
The Lost Ones, by Ace Atkins, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2012) is available here.