By Phyllis Seesengood
JOPLIN, Mo. —
"Creole Belle," by James Lee Burke, is the 19th book in the Dave Robicheaux series and picks up where "The Stained Glass Window" left off.
Dave is recuperating in a New Orleans hospital after he and his partner, Clete Purcel, barely survive multiple gunshot wounds from a shootout at the end of the previous novel. Still haunted by his Vietnam experiences and ghosts from his past, Dave remains a family man and tries to be a good cop, although he steps over the line a bit at times.
Creole singer Tee Jolie Melton visits Dave in the hospital and leaves him an iPod with songs on it, including "Creole Belle" and a few more that she sings. Before Tee Jolie leaves the room, she whispers something about drilling rigs leaking oil in the Gulf.
Because Dave is on a strong painkiller, relatives and friends dismiss his account of Tee Jolie's visit as a drug-induced dream, given that no one else can hear Tee Jolie's songs on the iPod, even though the iPod is real.
Dave checks himself out of the hospital a bit prematurely. He doesn't know that Tee Jolie has been missing and presumed dead for several weeks. When the body of her sister, Blue Melton, washes ashore in a block of ice, Dave becomes preoccupied with finding both Tee Jolie and her sister's killer. Dave's loyal and sometimes dangerous friend, Clete Purcel, joins him in the search.
Clete plays a major role in this novel and comes with his own kind of baggage. A couple of lowlifes in New Orleans have acquired a decades-old gambling marker that Clete had paid off years ago, but they insist he pay again or one of them threatens to take Clete's office building in payment. When Clete requests Dave's help, he reluctantly helps him track down the sellers of Clete's marker.
Clete offers a job to a young woman named Gretchen, who turns out to be his long-lost daughter. He begins to suspect that Gretchen may also be a contract killer.
As Dave and Clete search for Tee Jolie and his sister's killer, a huge oil spill is polluting the Gulf of Mexico. Their investigation leads to the oil industry, which Dave already resents, because a well blowout in the 1960s caused his father's death. All clues appear to lead to the Duprees, a wealthy family with numerous secrets hidden in their lives and on their plantation.
Good, evil, crime, corruption and the environment are familiar themes in several of Burke's novels, and those themes are present in this novel. This is a story of family, sex slavery, corrupt oil executives, art theft and murder, and it is populated with some truly evil characters.
James Lee Burke is a master storyteller who once again uses his extraordinary lyrical prose style in his descriptions of the natural beauty of his beloved Louisiana, but also in his anger and sadness at the degradation of the environment. Burke's remarkable and descriptive writing is to be savored, and I truly hope it doesn't take another environmental disaster for him to write his next novel.
Will Patton has narrated most of the James Lee Burke novels, and his narration is always superb. In the audio version of "Creole Belle," he adds his special brand of humor with his entertaining treatment of Clete that makes the story an extraordinary listening experience.
Phyllis Seesengood is technical services librarian for the Joplin Public Library.