At 87, James Lee Burke finds ‘no finer life’ than fiction writing


James Lee Burke is considered one of the gods of the crime novel genre. If he wrote in any other genre, which he could easily do, he would have won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

He is mostly known for writing about New Orleans and New Iberia, deep in the bayou country of southern Louisiana. His Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, has appeared in nearly 30 of his novels. He has also written 12 novels about a Western family, the Hollands, who are sheriffs and prosecutors. But the “Big Easy” universe is where he is most at home. He can count 46 novels in his nearly 60 years of writing.

Burke, 87, was first published in 1965 with “Half of Paradise.” He wrote his first Robicheaux novel, “The Neon Rain,” in 1987. His most recent is “Clete,” in which Robicheaux takes a back seat to Clete Purcel, his longtime friend, confidante and former partner at the New Orleans Police Department.

Open to any page in Burke’s Robicheaux novels and you will find a paragraph or two that stand out, as in “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” in which he writes about a chain gang: “The work was understood and accomplished with the smoothness and certitude and rhythm that come from years of learning that it will never have a variation.” By the way, that book received 118 rejections before Louisiana State University Press rejuvenated Burke’s career.

He also is not afraid to move into the paranormal. In “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead,” Robicheaux confronts Civil War troops in a mystical reality. In his new book, Joan of Arc appears often to help Clete deal with a vague group of terrorists who are ready to unleash a hellish substance on the world.

In a New York Times interview, Burke provided insight into the creative process: “I know of no finer life than that of a fiction writer. You need only a notebook and a pencil and a belief in the quiet voice that dwells inside you in order to create a book that is truly wonderful. My first novel, ‘Half of Paradise,’ cannot be called truly wonderful, but to me, when I was writing on a pipeline in southeast Texas, it was.”

When Burke writes about his own writing, it is as if it is almost a religious experience.

His career has not always been full of accolades. He endured a long stretch when he couldn’t land a hardback contract. But he kept writing while holding jobs as an oil rigger and Forest Service employee or collecting unemployment.

His books mostly lack humor, except for the entertainingly melodious names of his bad guys, like Baby Cakes and Pookie the Possum. Violence, often random, permeates his work.

In Burke’s new book, Robicheaux finds Clete pissed off over the pillaging of his Cadillac by what appears to be a drug gang looking for some lost fentanyl.

Clete has an oversized sense of justice and can’t let it lie. When he confronts some truly ugly bad guys and ends up in the hospital, he enlists the help of his pal Dave, who has been suspended once again by the local police department for some infraction. They set out to make it right, and then the bodies begin to fill the morgue.

In the Robicheaux novels, both Clete and Dave have experienced the horrors of the Vietnam War and accompanying damage to their psyches. Dave is now sober, but Clete is definitely not.

In the new novel, Clete romances two women. One is a former cop turned stripper. The other is a would-be movie star with a 1920s look and a crooked husband. Both are offering him advice.

The book ends like most of the others, with a shootout at the O.K. Corral (a seedy bowling alley, in this case), but with less bloodshed than is normal in Burke’s novels.

The new book is an interesting take on Robicheaux’s dark side from Clete’s first-person point of view, and it foreshadows a possible greater role for Clete.

The book will surely be on The New York Times’ best-seller list. Collectors will be scrambling for autographed Burke books — scarce due to Burke’s fear of flying for promotional events.





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