James Lee Burke's Creole Belle

I’ve said it in the past and I’ll say it again here…open the cover to a James Lee Burke novel and you’ll instantly be doused with swamp water and the combined scents of meat fires and crab boils. Burke is undoubtedly the master of painting vivid pictures using words as his choice of medium, and a blank page as his canvas—he’s Manet meets Norman Rockwell.

Creole Belle is a tale of passion for the bayou and rage toward anyone who dares to threaten Dave Robicheaux’s precious Gulf coast. It’s a convoluted story with intricately detailed flavors of the mob, stolen and forged art, white slavery, Nazi war criminals, BP’s oil gushing into the waters of the Gulf, tar balls, the blues, and the love of fathers for their daughters, even if one of those daughters is a hired “hit-woman.” Actually, Burke unleashed a plot so splendidly thick and layered and lavishly decorated with all the trimmings, that readers may worry about the book’s bindings giving way at any moment. But the danger of the book coming apart is, as always, held together by the extremely strong friendship between Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell.

Dave and Clete plow through the pages, searching for Tee Jolie Melton, a young blues singer. Along the way, Clete finds the daughter he never knew, Gretchen, and Dave is bursting-at-the-seams-proud of his daughter, Alafair, who’s hard at work writing a novel.

During the hero’s journey, there’s plenty of action, plenty of heartache and angst, and plenty character flaws that ring true on many levels.

There’s also plenty of violence in this book; however, it’s violence that, while sometimes over the top, forces the reader to turn the pages again and again.

Clete barrels his way to the final chapter in traditional Purcell style—sex, drugs, alcohol, and a little Boogie-Woogie to help it all go down. Dave, on the other hand, pushes back when his old nemesis—alcohol—comes calling. But his determination and drive shoves him down the only path he knows, the right one. And he’ll stop at nothing, short of killing an innocent person, to reach a satisfactory conclusion to the crime du jour.

Emotions run high in this book, as high as the Spanish moss that lifts and flutters in the pre-storm breezes, like fine lace gently sprinkled over the branches of live oaks. Ghosts from both Dave and Clete’s past appear in the story to remind us of the daily struggles facing soldiers who’ve seen the worst of the worst.

I highly recommend Creole Belle. Sure, Dave’s a little off-center when it comes to following department rules and regulations, and, to my horror, Burke actually brought out the dreaded “c” word (cordite) in a line on page 363—“Clete and I had stayed high on booze and racetracks and the smell of cordite and…” Still, the book is a great read.

I feel I must warn readers who may be new to Burke’s work…this may not be the best book to start your journey with this author. I suggest dipping your toes in the water first, by picking up a copy of one of his earlier works. Then hang on tightly, because James Lee Burke is an author who, once his writing sets its hooks in you, will never let you go. You’ll be a fan for life.

  1. Monica T. Rodriguez
    Monica T. Rodriguez says:

    I’m thrilled to hear that Louisiana natives are so pleased with the world Mr. Burke has created for Dave Robicheaux. As a “yankee” I’m thoroughly taken by the images he’s painted of New Orleans, almost as much as the characters he’s created.
    Jolie Blon’s Bounce was actually my introduction to Dave Robicheaux, and I immediately ate up the series. I’ve now read the entire Robicheaux series, and never been let down. I really enjoyed seeing how much we’ve learned of Clete in the last few books too. He is a friend like no other, and he and Dave make quite the pair. I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment.
    Excellent review, Lee. You’ve really captured the essence of these characters and James Lee Burke’s writing.

  2. Linda Hebert Todd
    Linda Hebert Todd says:

    I have all of Burke’s Robichaux novels. I live about 45 minutes down the road from New Iberia. I love my home state, warts and all, and he plunks me down right in the middle of it. My two favorites are IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD and JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE. They both have a hint of the supernatural in them. I understand he’s got another Robichaux coming out in July, but it takes place in Montana, or somewhere up there. Thanks for the review.

  3. Steve Perry
    Steve Perry says:

    I love Burke’s novels, they are most evocative of Louisiana, where I grew up. The only cavil I have is that much of what he writes about is not really the Louisiana of today, but the 1950’s, where everybody had a shell driveway and ate boudin and crawfish. Streak and Clete are more akin to Mike Hammer than they are to contemporary cops and private eyes. Not that that’s a bad thing, but just so you know …

    Steve