FOR THE REST of the world, the season was still fall, marked by cool nights and the gold-green remnants of summer. For me, down in South Louisiana, in the Garden District of New Orleans, the wetlands that lay far beyond my hospital window had turned to winter, one characterized by stricken woods that were drained of water and strung with a web of gray leaves and dead air vines that had wrapped themselves as tightly as cord around the trees.
Those who have had the following experience will not find my descriptions exaggerated or even metaphorical in nature. A morphine dream has neither walls nor a ceiling nor a floor. The sleep it provides is like a warm bath, free of concerns about mortality and pain and memories from the past. Morpheus also allows us vision through a third eye that we never knew existed. His acolytes can see through time and become participants in grand events they had believed accessible only through history books and films. On one occasion, I saw a hot-air balloon rising from its tether in Audubon Park, a uniformed soldier operating a telegrapher’s key inside the wicker basket, while down below other members of the Confederate Signal Corps shared sandwiches and drank coffee from tin cups, all of them as stately and stiff as figures in a sepia-tinted photograph.
I don’t wish to be too romantic about my experience in the recovery facility there on St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans. While I gazed through my window at the wonderful green streetcar wobbling down the tracks on the neutral ground, the river fog puffing out of the live oak trees, the pink and purple neon on the Katz & Besthoff drugstore as effervescent as tentacles of smoke twirling from marker grenades, I knew with a sinking heart that what I was seeing was an illusion, that in reality the Katz & Besthoff drugstore and the umbrella-covered sno’ball carts along St. Charles and the musical gaiety of the city had slipped into history long ago, and somewhere out on the edge of my vision, the onset of permanent winter waited for me.
Though I’m a believer, that did not lessen the sense of trepidation I experienced in these moments. I felt as if the sun were burning a hole in the sky, causing it to blacken and collapse like a giant sheet of carbon paper suddenly crinkling and folding in on itself, and I had no power to reverse the process. I felt that a great darkness was spreading across the land, not unlike ink spilling across the face of a topographic map.
Many years ago, when I was recovering from wounds I received in a Southeast Asian country, a United States Army psychiatrist told me that my morphine-induced dreams were creating what he called a “world destruction fantasy,” one that had its origins in childhood and the dissolution of one’s natal family. He was a scientist and a learned man, and I did not argue with him. Even at night, when I lay in a berth on a hospital ship, far from free-fire zones and the sound of ammunition belts popping under a burning hooch, I did not argue. Nor did I contend with the knowledge of the psychiatrist when dead members of my platoon spoke to me in the rain and a mermaid with an Asian face beckoned to me from a coral cave strung with pink fans, her hips spangled with yellow coins, her mouth parting, her naked breasts as flushed with color as the inside of a conch shell.
The cult of Morpheus is a strange community indeed, and it requires that one take up residence in a country where the improbable becomes commonplace. No matter what I did, nor how many times I disappeared out my window into the mists along St. Charles Avenue, back into an era of rooftop jazz bands and historical streetcars filled with men in bowler hats and women who carried parasols, the watery gray rim of a blighted planet was always out there—intransigent and corrupt, a place where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal.
IN THE EARLY A.M. on a Friday, I asked the black attendant to open the windows in my room. It was against the rules, but the attendant was an elderly and kind man who had spent five days on a rooftop after the collapse of the levees during Hurricane Katrina, and he wasn’t given to concerns about authority. The windows reached to the ceiling and were hung with ventilated green shutters that were closed during the heat of the day to filter the sun’s glare. The attendant opened both the glass and the shutters and let in the night smell of the roses and camellias and magnolia and rain mist blowing through the trees. The air smelled like Bayou Teche when it’s spring and the fish are spawning among the water hyacinths and the frogs are throbbing in the cattails and the flooded cypress. It smelled like the earth may have smelled during the first days of creation, before any five-toed footprints appeared along the banks of a river.
Or at least I think the black man opened the windows. Even to this day I cannot be sure of what I said and saw and heard that night. Like the drunkard who fears both his memory and his dreams, I had become cynical about my perceptions, less out of fear that they were illusions than a conviction that they were real.
After the black man had left the room, I turned my head on the pillow and looked into the face of a Cajun girl by the name of Tee Jolie Melton.
“Hi, Mr. Dave,” she said. “I read all about the shooting in the papers. You was on television, too. I didn’t know you was here in New Orleans. I’m sorry to see you hurt like this. You was talking French in your sleep.”
“It’s nice to see you, Tee Jolie. How’d you get in?” I said.
“T’rew the front door. You want me to come back another time?”
“Can you get me a glass of water?”
“I got you better than that. I brought you a Dr Pepper and a lime I cut up, ’cause that’s what you always drank when you came into the club. I brought you somet’ing else, too. It’s an iPod I filled wit’ music. I loaded ‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’ on it, ’cause I knew how you always liked that song.”
Her eyes were blue-green, her hair long and mahogany-colored with twists of gold in it that were as bright as buttercups. She was part Indian and part Cajun and part black and belonged to that ethnic group we call Creoles, although the term is a misnomer.
“You’re the best,” I said.
“Remember when you he’ped me with my car crash? You was so kind. You took care of everyt’ing, and I didn’t have no trouble at all because of it.”
It wasn’t a
car crash. As I recalled, it
was at least three car crashes, but I didn’t pursue the point. The most interesting aspect of Tee Jolie’s auto accidents were her written explanations at the scene. To the best of my memory, these were her words:
“I was backing up when this light pole came out of nowhere and smashed into my bumper.
“I was turning left, but somebody was blocking the lane, so, trying to be polite, I switched my turn indicator and cut through the school parking lot, but I didn’t have no way of knowing the chain was up on the drive at that time of day, because it never is.
“When the transmission went into reverse, Mr. Fontenot was putting my groceries in the backseat, and the door handle caught his coat sleeve and drug him across the street into the gas pump that blew up. I tried to give him first aid on the mouth, but he had already swallowed this big wad of gum that the fireman had to pull out with his fingers. I think Mr. Fontenot almost bit off one of the fireman’s fingers and didn’t have the courtesy to say he was sorry.”
Tee Jolie fixed a glass of ice and Dr Pepper with a lime slice and stuck a straw in it and held it up to my mouth. She was wearing a long-sleeve shirt printed with purple and green flowers. Her skirt was pale blue and fluffy and pleated, and her shoes looked tiny on her feet. You could say that Tee Jolie was made for the camera, her natural loveliness of a kind that begged to be worshipped on a stage or hung on a wall. Her face was thin, her eyes elongated, and her hair full of waves, as though it had been recently unbraided, although that was the way it always looked.
“I feel selfish coming here, ’cause it wasn’t just to give you a Dr Pepper and the iPod,” she said. “I came here to ax you somet’ing, but I ain’t gonna do it now.”
“You can say anything you want, Tee Jolie, because I’m not even sure you’re here. I dream in both the day and the night about people who have been dead many years. In my dreams, they’re alive, right outside the window, Confederate soldiers and the like.”
“They had to come a long way, huh?”
“That’s safe to say,” I replied. “My wife and daughter were here earlier, and I know they were real. I’m not sure about you. No offense meant. That’s just the way it is these days.”
“I know something I ain’t suppose to know, and it makes me scared, Mr. Dave,” she said.
She was sitting in the chair, her ankles close together, her hands folded on her knees. I had always thought of her as a tall girl, particularly when she was onstage at the zydeco club where she sang, an arterial-red electric guitar hanging from her neck. Now she looked smaller than she had a few moments ago. She lifted her face up into mine. There was a mole by the corner of her mouth. I didn’t know what she wanted me to say.
“Did you get involved with some bad guys?” I said.
“I wouldn’t call them that. How come you to ax me that?”
“Because you’re a good person, and sometimes you trust people you shouldn’t. Good women tend to do that. That’s why a...
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“Burke is the reigning champ of nostalgia noir. . . . To be sure, the destruction of a pristine natural environment is a thematic staple of the regional crime novel, but nobody can touch Burke in the lyrical expression of howling grief. . . . [Creole Belle
is] a novel that shows how the sins of the fathers poison the ground their children walk on.”—The New York Times Book Review
“I think [James Lee] Burke is the best fiction writer in the country.”—Bill O’Reilly
“All the characters . . . are superbly drawn, and the plot is heart-pounding . . . sure to be embraced by author James Lee Burke's fans.”—The Washington Post
“Burke, 75, creates lyrical mysteries with what can only be described as deceptive ease. Whether it’s Robicheaux, stand-alone novels, or separate series starring Texas cousins Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland, the themes remain constant. Every novel Burke writes delves into moral ambiguity, the menaces of greed and violence, the degradation of people and land, the juxtaposition of natural beauty and man-made horror and, finally, the sublime joy of human love and loyalty.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Burke never goes wrong with his exquisite gift for taking us into the heart of Louisiana, its wetlands, small towns, the glory of old New Orleans and, as always, its checkered history. Combined with some of the finest characters ever to grace a page, that makes any Robicheaux novel a joy to read.” (The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Like its 18 predecessors in Burke’s series, Creole Belle
is a work of dark and radiant brilliance.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Reading James Lee Burke is a religious experience. …Creole Belle
may be one of Burke's best; it is certainly one of his most complex. . . . Intense doesn't begin to describe a Burke story . . . Biblical . . . now that about does it.”—San Antonio Express
“The plot is fast-moving and thriller-tough, the bodies mount quickly, and the writing is lyrical and evocative . . . as laced with complications as the canals crosscutting Robicheaux's beloved, threatened wetlands.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune
"If all novelists were as thoughtful and nuanced as James Lee Burke, we could finally put to rest those groundless prejudices against genre fiction . . . the [Dave Robicheaux] books are works of dark art. At their unflinching best, they examine the cost of violence, even when it's performed in the name of justice, and the haunted worlds inhabited by those resigned to limping through life with a blood-soaked conscience." (Miami Herald
“Burke weaves a rich example of his trademark bayou noir. Filled with cruelty and valor, greed and sacrifice, and surprises of the worst and best kind, Creole Belle
is a dark but irresistible cruise.”—Tampa Bay Times
“As a crime novel, Creole Belle
delivers everything fans of the genre crave, and more: a masterful tale of good, evil, organized crime and the corporate-led destruction of the once-idyllic land of the Gulf Coast.
Burke muses along at a steady pace, never hurrying, never stalling. He uses the modern crime novel the way a master chef uses local, organic foods to create a gastronomic feast—in this case, a classical tragedy with all the fixin’s.”—ShelfAwareness.com
] is a wild ride of a novel, but the true joys of Burke’s novels are the exquisitely fine writing and his character’s familiarity with great thinkers and theologians. . . . It is fair to say that Burke truly stands with Chandler and Hammett in the pantheon of great American crime fiction novelists.”—Asbury Park Press
“This tale plays out much like The Glass Rainbow—
intimations of mortality; melancholic musing on the pillaging of once-Edenic South Louisiana; cathartic, guns-blazing climax—but, as always, Burke brings something new to the table . . . Dave and Clete may still be unbowed, but they are certainly broken—and all the more interesting for it.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Another stunner from a modern master.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Great news for readers who feared that Burke had left Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Robicheaux dying at the end of The Glass Rainbow
(2010); Dave and his old friend Clete Purcel are back for an even more heaven-storming round of homicide, New Orleans–style. . . . A darkly magnificent treat for Dave’s legion of admirers.”—Kirkus Reviews
“One of the masters, James Lee Burke, has a new Dave Robicheaux novel just out, Creole Belle
. Elmore Leonard famously advises all writers to never write about ‘boring stuff’ like the weather, but Burke’s catalog is a direct contradiction to that advice. He writes about Louisiana and the Gulf with such sensual detail about sights, smells, and yes—the weather—that you can skip paying Delta for that flight to the Big Easy.”—Detroit News
“Fortunately for us, we can luxuriate in the 500-plus pages of Burke’s sinuous tale before we can decipher this complex puzzle.”—Dayton Daily News
“Burke’s fascinatingly conflicted Cajun anti-hero Dave Robicheaux returns.”—Dallas Morning News
"Burke has a knack for giving the reader atmosphere through descriptions of architecture, the sights and sounds of overheated New Orleans and southern Louisiana's quirky folks." (Albuquerque Journal
“When something terrible happens in Louisiana, the only consolation might be that James Lee Burke is inspired to write another Dave Robicheaux novel about it.”—Houston Chronicle
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