A Week in Books: In an age of 24/7 global news, people might drift back to reading fiction

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The Independent Culture

It's much too facile, inspecting from afar the drowned world of New Orleans and the Gulf, to reach for the "disaster movie" tag and swamp suffering in a wave of cliché. Forget Hollywood catastrophe: I have one extraordinary source of "heart information" to recommend. The Katrina aftermath has inflicted avoidable tragedy on people whose reality stayed silent because they fell into the sort of categories that didn't count: the black, the poor, the sick and disabled. So it's appropriate that the most densely imagined and morally assured novels about Louisiana and its toxic terrain have come in recent years from a crime writer. Yes, from a mere mystery hack.

Which is not to say that James Lee Burke from New Iberia, La. has lacked praise. He has a shelf-full of awards and a shedful of sales. Everyone who knows the genre grasps that his series of books about the Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux has grown into one of the crowning achievements in current US fiction. Together, they compose a matchless portrait of the ragged America we saw dissolve into chaos and cruelty.

Orion has been re-issuing Burke's Robicheaux novels, so newcomers might want to discover such past glories as Sunset Limited, Cadillac Jukebox and Purple Cane Road. Or, since each title in some way tells the recovering-alcoholic cop's back-story, they could just as well start with the latest book: Crusader's Cross (Orion, £12.99). They may find it (as I did) eerie beyond measure to pick up a new novel in which, early on, Robicheaux drives into New Orleans to find "the streets were flooded, and thunder was booming over the Gulf", while at the climax "The radio said the hurricane churning out in the Gulf might make landfall between New Orleans and Mobile".

Yet the cultural climate matters more than the weather reports. Burke shows through his plots about buried secrets and concealed crimes that the stage-set charm of New Orleans, and the laid-back grace of the Gulf shores, rests on a history of bondage and brutality. In Robicheaux's world, "memories can be long, fear is fear, and race is at the heart of virtually every political issue". At home in the Bayou, he sees, just across a bridge from gorgeous antebellum mansions, "a trailer slum that probably has no equivalent outside the Third World. The juxtaposition seems almost contrived, like a set in a Marxist documentary".

Burke has been giving us the inside story on his patch for years, his books sustained by lush Southern-Gothic prose, fast-swerving plots, deep roots in history, and an intensity of character that any novelist might envy. Crusader's Cross first dives back into past, and the abduction of a girl in 1958 by an older generation of well-connected monsters. Coming up to date, via a serial slayer in Baton Rouge, we reach the core of corruption among the elite of the now-ruined city: "The Mafia introduced itself in New Orleans in 1890 by murdering the police commissioner and has been here ever since." By the way, among Burke's villains is a TV reporter-turned-media tycoon. He often brought the news, but never told the truth.