Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

Title: The Tin Roof Blowdown

Author: James Lee Burke

Publisher: Phoenix [originally published 2007, this edition 2008]

ISBN: 978-0-7538-2316-3

No. of pages: 444

Set in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricanes Katrina and Rita which devastated New Orleans and highlighted the many years of neglect which preceded the storms, The Tin Roof Blowdown is a big story. Burke’s hero, detective Dave Robicheaux, tries to track down who shot two people, one of whom was killed and the other paralysed, in the days of anarchy following Katrina. The people who were shot may have been responsible for the rape of a teenage girl some months earlier and were apparently looting the house of one of New Orleans’ most dangerous criminals on the night they were shot. There are loads more twists in the mix but to reveal any more would be spoiling things.

I’ll admit it: I lost the plots, literally, on several occasions. Between the multiple story threads, the continual jumping between first and third person point of view and the seemingly endless string of connections between people bent on revenge or consumed with guilt I got lost.  There are whole threads I never found the end of despite re-reading several long passages of the book. It was as if the storms and the neglect of the city and its people before and after them weren’t quite enough for Burke to rail against and he had to throw in Vietnam flashbacks, systemic corruption, an ugly sociopath, Al Qaeda (am I allowed an exclamation point after that?) and a half-dozen other sub plots for good measure. In a debut novel I can forgive the writer including every idea they’ve ever had but from a seasoned professional I expect something more (or less as the case may be).

To round out the confusion, the book required a more detailed knowledge of local geography than I can recall needing in 41 years of reading. I’ve visited New Orleans several times and spent a month touring through Louisiana only a couple of years before this book was set but I had to read with a map at my side just to make sense of some of the events. That’s not a normal thing for me to have to do even with books set in places that exist only in someone else’s imagination.

There’s a lot of Burke’s anger and heartache wrapped up in the fiction here and I found it tiresome. I’m not suggesting Burke’s fury isn’t genuine, I’m positive it is. I’m not saying it isn’t well-directed because I’m sure at least some of it is deserved. Neither am I saying it failed to move me: I cried more than once, at least at the beginning. All I am saying is that Burke’s version of the facts surrounding the storms and their aftermath were jammed into the narrative so often and so loudly that it felt at times like the story was an inconvenient interruption to a rant. Nothing I read here has changed my long held opinion: regardless of the worthiness of the message, fiction should entertain first and the political or social themes the author wants to explore should be part of the narrative not the written equivalent of Vegas-style neon signs flashing “insert empathy here”.

There were elements of the book I did enjoy. Burke’s writing, especially his dialogue, is at times beautiful. The kind of beautiful that make you read it out loud just to hear what the words sound like. And there are several interesting themes weaved expertly throughout the book. For example I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the different ways a person’s past can influence their present as this story has unfolded. Having never read any books by this author before I also enjoyed meeting loyal, persistent Dave Robicheaux and his extended family. There are other parts of the book that I think I might have enjoyed more, such as the strange journey of Bertrand Melancon, if I hadn’t been quite so annoyed by being preached at so consistently.

Overall though, possibly due to over-hype syndrome (my copy proclaimed it’s ‘the novel Burke was born to write’ among other superlative statements), it was a somewhat disappointing read. It seemed to try a little too hard to do a bit too much and managed to push nearly all of the reading buttons that lead to me grinding my teeth and muttering under my breath. I can appreciate that the author wanted to tell a big story about something he felt very deeply but, for me anyway, it was a hard slog that didn’t have the reward I would have liked.

My rating 3/5

Reviewed by Barbara at Barbara Fister’s Place in November 2007

Reviewed by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise in June 2008

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7 Responses to Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

  1. Maxine says:

    I’ve tried a couple of his books in the past and simply could not get on with them at all, or sort out what he was on about. I feel a bit of a heretic writing this, because I know he is very highly regarded, wins lots of awards, etc. Just not my cup of tea, I suppose.

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  2. I know how you feel Maxine – there are some authors that you feel you are supposed to like and you’ll be threatened with bodily violence if you disagree with ‘the crowd’. I probably wouldn’t have finished this book at all if it wasn’t for a book club read. I almost rated it much lower but for all its faults it wasn’t forgettable

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  3. Kerrie says:

    There’s been a lot of hype around this book and it was included on a number of award shortlists. But it almost had the same feeling of “sacred cow” about it that you get with books about 9-11. Criticism was in danger of being regarded as treachery or as Maxine says, heresy. Discussions of the book are often impeded by this because of the danger of not seeming supportive

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  4. bernadetteinoz says:

    Good point Kerrie. People can’t seem to separate things in their minds. I read lots of comments about this book on places like Amazon and people couldn’t seem to see that saying you didn’t like the book wasn’t equal to saying you didn’t care about what happened to the victims of Katrina and everything that came before and after it.

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  6. krimileser says:

    I must confess that I liked the book a lot. And I’d say that has to do with Burke’s literary capability. The first part, full of sound and fury, is a wonderful piece of work and his ability to change the focal character and the narrative mode is met by very very few authors.

    At that time I read several books which were by good authors and used several focal characters. No one of these authors was working as good as Burke. There is one scene were the first person narration of Robicheaux and the third person narration of his daughter come together.

    And I think that the book is more than fishing for empathy. It is a complex book about a complex social reality. But I agree it uses some (typical US) pathetic elements.

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