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CRIME FICTION:Me, Katrina, Southern Louisiaina, Cajun music and Dave Robicheaux

By Dave Riley
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in 2005 I ported myself on one of the local online radio stations which played nothing but local Louisiana music. The station, WWOZ, was being streamed from New Jersey way to the north -- away from the deluge as the station itself was under water and inaccessible.

Twenty four hours each day of non stop local music culture was delicious. WWOZ in Exile got me hooked on the local sounds and my preference veered strongly south to the parishes where the piano accordion driven sounds of Cajun and Zydeco music were created.

And when you get into the music you have to get a feel for the Arcadian (Cajuns) and Creoles who make it.

But there's more...! (The rich cultural patina of the United States never ceases to amaze me.)

Among these southern parishes is Iberia (Paroisse de l'Ibérie) -- with a population of less than 74,000. But in that parish and in the town that is the capital of that parish, New Iberia, resides the fictional character Dave Robicheaux .

Robicheaux is a creation of James Lee Burke and if you are familiar with such personages as Inspector Rebus, Kurt Wallander, Easy Rollins, or Martin Beck then here's another character for your crime fiction network.

However, crimes and plots aside -- James Lee Burke has a handy knack of locating his stories along a sort of uncharted moral course. There is no good or evil separation -- but instead a sort of logical pragmatism where actions are ruled by what seemed to be 'a good idea at the time'.

Whereas Easy Rawlins may serve as a reflection on Afro American post war history; and Martin Beck may function as a tool for a dialectical study of capitalism in 1960s Sweden -- James Lee Burke's interest is on what motivates people.

While this is a major focus in the Robicheaux novels, his Civil War historical novel -- White Doves at Morning (2002) -- which receates the experience of Burke's Irish forbear -- ponders how so many people can fight and die for a cause that meant , if triumphant, slavery would survive in the Confederate States? What was in it for Poor Whites?

Why did they do it? Why did they enlist and fight even if their own collective interest was so distant from that of the cotton plantation owners and exporters?

And this enigma of the South -- where brutality and racism can coexists among such cultural verve -- Lee's creative sustenance.

So in the same sense, James Lee Burke's recent novel, Tin Roof Blow Down (2007) is a intense reflection on George Bush's America. Set in New Orleans and Iberia during and after Katrina hits the Louisiana coast, Tin Roof Blowdown is a settling of accounts with the savagery unleashed by this devastating natural disaster. With such touches on the condition of those left to fend for themselves while the waters rose that you have to almost cry.

Burke's a dedicated left liberal of the kind that only the US can produce. Here's a southerner Gore Vidal without the pretensions or the penchant for the talk show circuit or the literary scene. He's also a lot shyer. But his fictional measure is sharper than Vidal's.

And unlike Wallander, Rebus and Easy Rawlins -- all of whom you have to begrudgingly like -- Robicheaux is just too mercurial for anyone, let alone us readers, to trust. So he is like the America that can be so many things so contradictory to one another.

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