Mysterious Book Report Creole BellCreole Bell by James Lee Burke

Simon & Shuster, $27.99, 528 pages, ISBN 978-1-4516-4813-3

Creole Bell begins in Indian summer with a torpid Dave Robicheaux in the hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.  He’s on a morphine drip for pain and very uncomfortable.  He has a history of alcohol and drug addiction, and is a long-standing member of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous . . . the twelve-step program that’s helped so many people to control their illness . . . one day at a time.  In the second paragraph of his narrative Robicheaux makes this observation:

“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.”

Then, in the early morning hours shortly after midnight on a Friday, he gets a visit from Tee Jolie Melton, a local Cajun woman, an entertainer who sings in local nightclubs . . . who leaves him an iPod loaded with songs she put on it . . . who tells him she is afraid because she is living with a famous man, and she heard him and his associates talking about an oil well casement and a blowout involving several deaths and billons of dollars.  Before leaving she adds that he’s married, she’s pregnant, he wants her to get an abortion, but she thinks he’s going to divorce his wife and marry her, and lastly, that some of his associates are ‘bad men’, the kind that ‘carry guns and hurt peoples’.

Robicheaux, already uncertain if she was really there or if he’s in the midst of a morphine dream, learns from his wife that Tee Jolie Melton and her younger sister named Blue have been missing for a couple of weeks while he’s been in a coma, suspended somewhere between life and death.  He puts the event out of his mind and concentrates on his recovery.

Then, just as Robicheaux is back at work as the Iberia Parish Sheriffs Offices Senior Homicide Investigator, Blue Melton’s body is found encased in a block of ice, floating in an inlet from the Gulf of Mexico.  It puts Robicheaux and best friend Clete Purcel on a mission to rescue Tee Jolie . . . which sets them on a collision course with a powerful cartel of ultra-wealthy businessmen, thugs, and aristocrats with billions of dollars at risk.  When an assassin named Caruso, who may be Cletes’ daughter turns up and one of the characters may in fact be a high ranking Nazi war criminal, the case takes a sinister turn with life-and-death consequences for Robicheaux, his wife and daughter as well as Clete Purcel.  Creole Bell is a five-hundred page thrill ride through the swamps and bayous and crime-infested society of one of the most beautiful . . . and beleaguered states in the entire union.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading one of Mr. Burke’s novels, please consider this an introduction, as well as an invitation to read this, or any of his other books and become one of his legions of fans.  He is a master of the English language, a wordsmith extraordinaire and certainly in my opinion, America’s Best Writer.

James Lee Burke was born in Texas in 1936, but spent much of his childhood in New Iberia, Louisiana, where his family has lived since 1836.  He received a BA and MA from The University of Missouri and has been awarded The Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in 1990 for Black Cherry Blues and another one in 1998 for his novel Cimarron Rose.  In 2009 he was awarded the ultimate distinction by the MWA, when he was named a Grand Master.  He lives in Montana with his wife, Pearl.


John Dwaine McKenna