Familiar tune 

With Creole Belle, Burke travels a worn path

This is not a spoiler: Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are just fine. At the end of James Lee Burke's 2010 entry into his long-running crime-fiction series, The Glass Rainbow, Robicheaux and Purcel had been shot up and left for dead on the banks of their familiar stomping grounds in Louisiana's Bayou Teche. Over the last 20 or so pages of that book, Burke wrote about mortality and regret and looking back at life's small moments in such a powerful and evocative way that it encapsulated what makes him such a celebrated writer—and seemed to seal the fate of his main protagonist and his loyal sidekick. As Robicheaux and Purcel are fond of saying, "Everyone gets to the barn," and in this case both were knee-deep in hay.

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  • James Lee Burke reads from Creole Belle at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 17, at 7 PM. Free.

Recovery is a remarkable thing in fiction, though. I'm not giving anything away by saying both survived the bloodbath at the end of The Glass Rainbow because, for starters, Creole Belle is proudly trumpeted as "A Dave Robicheaux Novel" on its cover. More importantly, by the end of the first chapter, while Robicheaux is still woozy and drugged and recuperating from the Bayou Teche ordeal, Purcel is already drunk and recklessly mixing it up with seedy lowlifes. Robicheaux and Purcel are just fine, all right, and there's little time wasted getting them into the thick of another intricate plot that pits "the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide" against people of immense power and unspeakable brutality.

Some of Burke's best writing of late, including The Glass Rainbow, stewed in the lead-up and aftermath of Katrina, and how that disaster left the underprivileged and underserved of Louisiana to suffer. In Creole Belle, Burke shifts his attention to another regional disaster, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 men and released nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It's a topic that hits close to home for Burke not only because of his Louisiana home (he splits time between there and Missoula), but also because he once worked for the Sinclair Oil Corporation before starting his writing career. Some of Creole Belle's strongest moments come when Burke lays into the oil industry and, in particular, when he lambasts the labeling of the aforementioned "Gulf spill."

"It seems to me a 'spill' is hardly an adequate term to describe the fate of men who die inside a man-made inferno," he writes.

While the blowout serves as a poignant backdrop, Creole Belle is, like all Burke novels, fueled by Robicheaux and Purcel navigating through back alleys and barrooms to beat the bad guys. In this case, it starts out with Purcel, a former detective turned renegade PI, confronted with an old debt he supposedly never paid. Robicheaux, meanwhile, who's down to part-time as the lead investigator with the New Iberia Sheriff's Department, visits with a gorgeous young Creole singer who may or may not be dead. It takes a while, and involves more than a little bloodshed, for both of those stories to loosely intertwine and involve, as Robicheaux puts it, "the lifeblood of the state": big oil.

All of this would seem to create the perfect recipe for a classic Burke novel, but somewhere among the 528 pages it gets lost. "Drowned out" is more like it. The blowout and greed of the oil industry would appear to suffice for a bang-up story, but Creole Belle involves a revolving door of increasingly far-fetched characters and story lines. There's a long-lost daughter who surfaces, something about trafficking stolen artwork, something else about trafficking heroin, another thing about trafficking women from third-world countries, a secret island, an albino, the Mafia, Iron Maiden torture sessions, possible incest and, last but certainly not least, Nazis. Making it all fit together feels burdensome. When the climax sets up almost identically to The Glass Rainbow, burdensomeness turns to absurdity.

Fans of Burke have long come to expect a certain repetition from his crime fiction. Police formalities and reality in general are willfully sacrificed so two larger-than-life characters can chew through pages, doing small heroic deeds that often matter little in the grand scheme of a broken system. Robicheaux and Purcel fight the good fight knowing, ultimately, that they're just chipping away at something much bigger than their sweaty little stretch of the South. In the hands of a gifted writer like Burke, that usually makes for one hell of a message packaged inside a page-turner. That is, until you feel like the whole thing is just going through the same old motions.

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