Creole Belle


I’m not going to post this entry as “What I’m Reading Now” because I listened to the audio book. In some ways that added to its appeal because Will Patton’s voice captured the soft drawl of the folks who live on the bayou. As mentioned, I decided to borrow it from the library because of the radio dead zone that pervades the hills and valleys between Connecticut and Williamsport.

Listening to the book was another of those out-of-time, out-of-place experiences that I’ve had over the years: reading The Feminine Mystique in Mexico City with men yelling “Hey, chica!” as they walked by me waiting for my group in the lobby of the Hilton; reading Angela’s Ashes on the beach in Hawaii; reading Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood among eucalyptus trees in California.

This time it was listening to descriptions of crushing heat, downpours, violent lightning, dried cane husks rustling under car tires, the smoke of burning fields, as I drove through green rolling terrain and came upon pristine red barns lacking power lines surrounded by cows or cornfields just beginning to tassel.

Creole Belle is one of the massive number of James Lee Burke’s crime novels. His anti-hero, Dave Robicheaux, is the homicide detective for the Iberia Parish sheriff’s department (pronounced “Ahburia”). Dave and his buddy Clete Purcell had worked for the New Orleans P.D. but departed under … circumstances. The men are Vietnam veterans and coping, not always successfully, with their demons from that time, along more recent and distant bouts in hell.

As Belle opens, Dave is waking up in a morphine haze from a murder attempt. He receives a visit from a young Creole woman he has assisted at various times. At least he thinks she’s visited and left an iPod with some music she recorded including her own rendition of “My Creole Belle.” No one else can hear the songs, and no one has seen the young woman in months.

Via Robicheaux, Burke does a good job of explaining the various layers of the meaning of the word “Creole” in South Louisiana. Both author and character are still fighting the Civil War, though one of the most sympathetic characters (victims) in the story is a young African American deputy sheriff and Robicheaux’s personal dealings with black people represent the way we should be treated.

The story runs along many parallel and intersecting lines, at times becoming downright preposterous.

Burke always sets his novels in a larger context. The Tin Roof Blowdown offered his take on Katrina and its aftermath. Creole Belle confronts the BP oil blowout – not a spill. According to Robicheaux’s angry and eloquent outburst, a spill occurs when there’s a little dribble of oil or other substance. This was an explosion, and Burke captures all the horror and violence of the blast of sand and oil and water that killed people – and a way of life.

I seldom read violent novels or mysteries, and listening to Creole Belle was even more difficult, but it is nourishing to hear Burke describe my father’s hometown. He includes Robicheaux’s walks from his house on Bayou Teche; by the Shadows, which my grandfather helped to restore in the early 1900s; to Victor’s where I ate; to Clementine where I also ate and mentioned in the earlier post because the poorboy (Clementine’s spelling) made me ravenous as I was trapped, starving, in a car with the most sophisticated nearby cuisine at McD’s. Burke left out Books on the Teche this time, but I remember it fondly as well.

With all its flaws, Belle kept me entertained for the return trip with no temptation to switch to radio.

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