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Book Review
Sunday, September 16, 2012
On Not Having to Brood Upon the Coming of Death

"Creole Belle" by James Lee Burke (Simon Schuster, hardback $27.99, Kindle $12.99)

James Lee Burke has been called "America's best novelist." But a cranky friend recently said, "Burke is a crime novelist who writes crap you buy in airport 'bookstores' for reading and discarding on a plane -- to consider him our 'best novelist' is one step removed from illiterate."

To the contrary, I lean toward the first description. For Burke writes like a poet -- his descriptions magical, his allusions ethereal, his stories hardboiled and gripping, his characters humanly flawed.

Key West writer Michael Haskins agrees with me, citing Burke as his favorite storyteller. A critic at the Washington Post proclaims, "He can touch you in ways few writers can."And the Philadelphia Inquirer opines, "When the literary lights of the 21st century go marching in, James Lee Burke will be leading the parade."

One of Burke's best-etched characters is Dave Robicheaux, a deputy sheriff in New Iberia, Louisiana, a little parish just a bayou or two outside of New Orleans. With the help of his former NOPD partner, the portly private eye Clete Purcel, Robicheaux faces evil in human form, sometimes stepping outside the confines of the law to right wrongs, stand up to rapacious oil companies and save damsels in distress such as the melodious Creole singer named Tee Jolie Melton.

Does Tee Jolie come to him in his dreams? Are her phone calls only inside his head? Can only Dave hear Tee Jolie's songs on his iPod? And is she missing or is she dead?

While many enjoy reading Burke for his rhapsodic descriptions of New Orleans and its dark culture, in "Creole Belle" we also connect to Key West, through an antique business located in the Florida Keys.

Burke writes: "Key West is a fine place to visit, and it reminds me in many ways of old New Orleans, with its gingerbread houses and palm trees and genteel sense of decay and neon-scrolled pretense at vice that in reality is an illusion ... Almost year-round, the air was warm and smelled of salt and rain and tropical flowers from all over the world. The winter was not really winter at all, and therein may lie Key West's greatest charm. If one does not have to brood upon the coming of winter and the shortening of days and the fading of light, then perhaps one does not have to brood upon the coming of death. When the season is gentle and unthreatening and seems to renew itself daily, we come to believe that spring and the long days of summer may be eternal after all."

Elmore Leonard writes the truest dialogue. James Lee Burke writes the most lyrical descriptions. While both are crime novelists, their books manage to transcend the genre to qualify as (dare we say it?) literature.

-- Reviewed

by Shirrel Rhoades

"Decker PI: Scorpion Cay" by Bill Craig (Amazon.com for 9.95)

And then there's the pulp-fiction genre, in which we most certainly must brood upon the coming of death.

We originally became acquainted with Bill Craig, creator of the "Decker P.I." series of paperback originals, during our long-ago incarnation as editorial director of Gold Eagle, an action-adventure division of Harlequin Books in Los Angeles and Toronto.

All of the Decker P.I. titles, beginning with "Scorpion Cay" and ongoing with "Killshot," "Death Song," "Smugglers' Blues" and "A Cold and Lonely Death," are set in the Keys. They feature Sam Decker, a former Miami DEA agent who walked out to become a private investigator on the mythical island of Scorpion Cay, visiting Key West in the course of dodging or pursuing mayhem.

How can one resist any easy read that begins: "It was a typically warm and balmy night in the Florida Keys"? In this first book in the series, we meet such locals as Jessica Monroe who enjoys karaoke at the Parrot's Beak bar and has a mysterious past (she's writing a novel!). Then there are people with names like Benny the Jet and Joey Fishbine, plus exploding ribs and skulls blown off, SIG Sauer revolvers aplenty with loads of sexism (plus "sore nuts"). And there's Decker's essential coda, true of all pulp heroes: "Family was a ride he was afraid to take -- it gave his enemies an edge because they knew where they could strike at you."

Of course there's nothing here to equal such stories as county administrators personally funding the investigations of employee shenanigans that they themselves are involved in or state attorneys naming names out of court or any of that. It would be simply unbelievable.

Or may-be not. "I'd love it if I could hit you up for some local color for future books in the series," writes the author in a personal postscript to this reviewer.

"So where does that leave us?" Monica moans on page 212. "Only time will tell," grins Decker. Then he kissed her hard on the lips, silencing anything else he had to say....

-- Reviewed

by Mark Howell