If you like light, fluffy mysteries, James Lee Burke is not for you. If you like Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck, you may love the heck out of Burke. His detective novels have a dark and gritty style that one might call nouveau noir. Below are listed the top 10 reasons that I am completely and totally in love with the writing of American mystery writer James Lee Burke.
1. The writing. James Lee Burke is a masterful writer whose descriptions of nature and human nature are unparalleled. Burke writes as if he has had many lives from naturalist, to law enforcement officer, to psychologist, to rehab counselor, to addict--James Lee Burke has had a lot of experience in all of these areas. His writing is beautiful and powerful. His descriptions of light and landscape make him the literary equivalent of American landscape painter George Inness--Burke's images are quiet, intimate, and always related to the story. If you enjoy writers who can paint nature with words, James Lee Burke is the man.
2. Dave Robicheaux. Recovering alcoholic and law enforcement officer Dave Robicheaux is a seriously complicated and simple man. As the protagonist of many of Burke's novels, Robicheaux is part Sam Spade and part Jesse Stone, another alcoholic detective from the imagination of the great mystery writer Robert Parker. Dave's wife, Molly, is a former nun. Dave's best friend Cletus Purcel is another deeply complex and troubled man with a heart of gold. We also know that James Lee Burke, just like Dave Robicheaux, is a recovering alcoholic, so Robicheaux (like all writer's characters) is semi-autobiographical. Burke knows the dirty boogie of which he writes.
3. Country music. If you love the old-time country music of the Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, you will love James Lee Burke. His writing is peppered with references to old-time country music and Cajun music. Old-time country music is the poignant, sad, and underlying soundtrack to many of Burke's books.
4. Human nature. If you are a fan of human nature, with our messy personal lives, our complicated back stories, whacked tendencies, and bad choices made on the fly, Dave Robicheaux and James Lee Burke are calling your name. There is always a thread of redemption that helps to bring Dave and Clete out of the gutter, but it's usually just a thin fiber of decency. Burke is a man clearly familiar with politics, deceit, nepotism, racism, poverty, and injustice.
5. Challenging stereotypes. Burke likes to present stereotypical characters that we think we know--the hooker with a heart of gold, the fugitive from law enforcement, the hardened criminal--and then he adds a twist and more characteristics that raise these players up to give them the feel of fully-realized human beings.
6. Great storytelling. I can almost never figure out whodunit in a James Lee Burke mystery. The skill of being able to suggest, conceal, and reveal the guilty party is perhaps one of the most-prized skills of a good mystery writer and Burke is the master. Like a magician, Burke can misdirect, redirect, and focus our attention where he wants it to be. Burke also has a great understanding of rural, small-town politics and law enforcement from his time in New Iberia, Louisiana and Lolo, Montana.
7. Award winning. Not only is James Lee Burke a best-selling author (which doesn't mean a whole lot qualitatively), he is an award winning author. Burke received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998, a Louisiana Writer Award in 2002, and two Edgar Allen Poe writing awards in 1990 for "Black Cherry Blues" and 1998 for "Cimarron Rose".
8. Family. James Lee Burke is the cousin of American short story writer Andre Dubus II. Burke is father to American crime novelist and lawyer Alafair Burke who is also a very successful writer. Is there something in the Burke family that makes great writers? Maybe. Burke has also been married for 48 years to his wife Pearl, whom he met in graduate school at the University of Missouri.
9. FaceBook. I am friends with James Lee Burke on FaceBook and am often treated to spontaneous stories of the wild and domestic animals that live around his Montana ranch. Sometimes his daughter Pamala updates his FB page as well. It is always a pleasure and a treat to find a small sketch of Montana life in my FB feed. It reminds me that even though James Lee Burke is an award-winning and best-selling author, he is just a regular guy who appreciates nature. Burke also has an active message board through his website whereby readers may send a note or ask a question of the writer himself.
10. Collectible. I am a dedicated book hound. I scrounge for used books in every library, thrift shop, and book sale that I can find, and I have almost never found a James Lee Burke novel. Why? My theory is that people tend to hold onto these awesome mystery books or pass them on to people they love. People love books by James Lee Burke and don't tend to toss them so easily onto the pile with Clive Cussler and Danielle Steele.
So there you have it. Ten reasons to love James Lee Burke. But don't take my word for it. Burke has a couple of dozen books to his name and you can jump in on anyone of them at any time, there is no need to read the Robicheaux novels in order. And you can check out several James Lee Burke novels at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, West Virginia.