Mysterious Book Report James Lee Burke

Part I

A Tribute to James Lee Burke

Twenty-some years ago, at a time when we only had one vehicle, I was waiting in the car for my wife, June, to get off work, listening to a woman named Terri Gross interview a crime-fiction writer about his latest book.  The writer’s name was James Lee Burke and his book featured an iconic character he’d created: a Louisiana police detective named Dave Robicheaux.  (pronounced ROW-ba-show)  I can’t remember which of Mr. Burke’s novels he was talking about, but I’m certain it was one of the first two or three.  In listening to the description of both the character and the plot, it dawned on me that Robicheaux was one of the most compelling, most complex and most interesting characters I’d ever heard about.  It’s a long held belief of mine that the most interesting and compelling characters in crime fiction are the ones with flaws; the more interesting.  They have to struggle to overcome themselves, while at the same time fighting an unknown entity or group in order to solve the crime, right a wrong and obtain justice for the victims . . . the poor, the powerless and the dead . . . those who can not speak for themselves.

When June got in the car, just as the interview ended, I said, “Wow! It’s too bad you couldn’t hear the interview that was just on with a writer named James Lee Burke,” and told her all about it.

“You’ve never heard of him?” she said.  “I can hardly believe it, as many whodunits as you’ve read.”

“Me neither,” I said, “but I’m gonna fix that right now.”  On our way home, we stopped at Chinook, our favorite local bookstore, and bought the novel Mr. Burke had just written.  Thus began a twenty-plus year conversation between myself and the author whose work and unique combinations of beauty and horror; crime and compassion; hatred and violence mayhem gunfights and the religious lessons of forgiveness tolerance and love have kept me enthralled through all thirty-one of his novels and short stories.  Dave Robicheaux is a character at odds with himself and the world he finds himself living in; a man whose self-description speaks volumes about his struggle with himself, addiction to alcohol and his character:

“My history is one of alcoholism, depression, violence and bloodshed.  For much of it I have enormous regret.  For some of it I have no regret at all, and given the chance, I would commit the same deeds again, without pause, particularly when it comes to protection of my own.”

After reading that first novel featuring Robicheaux, which I believe was called Black Cherry Blues, I was intrigued, and bought the first two, Heaven’s Prisoners and The Neon Rain.  By the time I had finished those two, I was hooked with a gaff.  And over the years, I’ve read each one of Mr. Burke’s novels as they were published.  Indeed, I have read many of them twice.  He’s the author I admire most and who, along with Hemmingway, Elmore Leonard and a couple of others, has had the biggest influence on my own modest efforts.  With that in mind, I can say in all honesty, that I think his latest work is probably his best.  James Lee Burke has been awarded two Edgars, named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, honored with Guggenheim and Bread Loaf Fellowships, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  He’s been called “America’s best novelist” by the Denver Post and that, I think is probably the greatest compliment a writer could ever get from a reviewer.

This ends part I of our tribute to James Lee Burke.  Next week we will review his latest Robicheaux novel: Creole Bell and give a short synopsis of his life and career.