Tuesday, October 13, 2009

B is for Burke (James Lee)

My fellow Anzac Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has created a great series where each week book bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, all linking to each other.

I was a little slow on the uptake, missing "A" last week (I might have started with A Man Lay Dead, the first Dame Ngaio Marsh novel, celebrating it's 75th anniversary this year), but am raring to go now.

This week it's the turn of "B", which provides plenty of options (think how many times the word 'Blood' is used in a crime fiction title). In fact my first five reviews for Karen Meek at EuroCrime earlier this year all started with the letter B - BLIND EYE by Stuart MacBride, BURIED by Mark Billingham, BURIAL by Neil Cross, BLOOD RUNS COLD by Alex Barclay, and BLOOD LINE by Mark Billingham.

So far my fellow book bloggers have added posts on Jan Burke's novel BONES (Bernadette at Reactions to Reading), Agatha Christie's novel BLACK COFFEE (Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist), author Simon Brett (Kerrie herself), and thriller writer Desmond Bagley (Maxine at Petrona).

I was sorely tempted to do my post on Mark Billingham, who I think is arguably the best British crime writer of recent times. But since I've already covered Billingham a fair bit on this blog, with reviews and links to awards and radio interviews etc, I thought I'd instead write a post on another tremendous writer who sits at the absolute pinnacle of the crime writing tree: acclaimed bestselling American author James Lee Burke (some would argue the best American crime writer of recent times).


72-year old Burke was born in Houston, Texas and grew up on the Gulf Coast (where most of his novels are now set). He is most famous for his award-winning novels featuring recovering alcoholic and Vietnam vet Dave Robicheaux (17 and counting), but he has also written four novels featuring Texas attorney Billy Bob Holland, two short story anthologies, and seven other books, including the sprawling historical epic WHITE DOVES AT MORNING.

Although he has written 30 books since his 1965 debut HALF OF PARADISE, published while he was still in his 20s, Burke's career path as a writer has been an interesting one.
Despite reviewers such as the New York Times calling his debut "impressive, passionate", he actually only published four more novels over the next 21 years. He has worked as a landman for Sinclair Oil Company, pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter, college English professor (traipsing across the country for more than 20 years from college to college), social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles, clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service, and instructor in the U. S. Job Corps. A writer who got out there and got his hands dirty with life in general.

For all those budding writers out there, struggling to continue in the face of resistance, writers block, and rejection, look to James Lee Burke as Exhibit A for great success eventually following great persistence. Over a period of nine years in the late 1970s and early-mid 1980s he was rejected 112 times (reportedly a record in the New York publishing world) for his fifth novel, THE LOST GET BACK BOOGIE (a story about a Korean War veteran released in the '60s from a Louisiana prison farm where he served a term for manslaughter). Eventually upon publication by Louisiana State University Press in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

At the same time, he'd begun working on his first novel featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, THE NEON RAIN, also his first out-and-out crime novel, although in later interviews he's pointed out that his books have always focused on his great theme of the abuse of power, and that they all drip with crime - violence in the Kentucky coal fields, for instance, or anti-union thuggery in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Published in 1987, this success of this book and THE LOST GET BACK BOOGIE catapulted Burke onto another level as a writer (in terms of recognition and regularity). Since then he has published around a book a year, most of them big bestsellers that have been heaped with critical praise.

Along with the critical and sales recognition, James Lee Burke has also received several awards for his writing, including the prestigious Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, twice, for the Robicheaux novel BLACK CHERRY BLUES (1990) and the first Billy Bob Holland novel CIMMARON ROSE (1997). He also won the prestigious Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime writing in 1994 for his Robicheaux novel DIXIE CITY JAM (and has been shortlisted three other times).

Earlier this year he was honoured with the 2009 Grand Master Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America. It recognizes lifetime achievement and consistent quality (the inaugural award was given to Dame Agatha Christie in 1955, and New Zealand crime Queen Dame Ngaio Marsh also received the award in 1978). Even though he writes mysteries, 'popular fiction', the quality of his writing is so renowned that he has been called "the Graham Greene of the Bayou" and "a poet of the mystery novel". Moreover, some critics have simply called him "America's Best Novelist".
I 'discovered' James Lee Burke several years ago while browsing in a bookstore (it was a terrific day - I also stumbled across my first Michael Connelly on that shopping trip). Since that time whenever anyone asks me who are the world's best crime writers, his name is always in the conversation. And whenever I strike someone who thinks crime writing is inferior to other writing when it comes to quality - I simply point them in the direction of James Lee Burke. I would happily stack him up against any of the world's great novelists.

Burke writes in a lyrical style that gives a brilliant sense of the Gulf Coast settings, lush and vivid, while also engaging the reader with great plots, engrossing characters, and a fair sprinkling of social issues weaving throughout.

His daughter Alafair (the name of one of the characters in his Robicheaux novels) is now also a crime novelist. If you haven't read James Lee Burke yet, and you are a fan of crime fiction, or just great writing in general, treat yourself and go pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library today.


Dave Robicheaux
The Neon Rain (1987)
Heaven's Prisoners (1988)
Black Cherry Blues (1989)
A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
A Stained White Radiance (1992)
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
Dixie City Jam (1994)
Burning Angel (1995)
Cadillac Jukebox (1996)
Sunset Limited (1998)
Purple Cane Road (2000)
Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002)
Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
Crusader's Cross (2005)
Pegasus Descending (2006)
The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)
Swan Peak (2008)

Billy Bob Holland
Cimarron Rose (1997)
Heartwood (1999)
Bitterroot (2001)
In the Moon of Red Ponies (2004)

MiscellaneousHalf of Paradise (1965)
To The Bright and Shining Sun (1970)
Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971)
Two for Texas (1982)
The Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986)
White Doves at Morning (2002)
Rain Gods (2009)

Short Story anthologiesThe Convict (1985)
Jesus Out to Sea (2007)

Have you read James Lee Burke? What do you think of his writing? Do you like the Lousiana/Texas Gulf Coast settings? What do you think of Robicheaux as a character? Have you seen the recent movie In the Electric Mist, where Tommy Lee Jones plays the Cajun detective?


  1. Thanks for this interesting bio! I always like learning a little about the authors that I read, and to be honest, while I've read (and liked)some of Burke's Robicheaux novels, I never knew a lot about him. Nicely done : )

  2. What an excellent post Craig. Thanks for joining the meme. I have read a couple of Burke novels - most recently THE TIN ROOF BLOW DOWN which got huge accolades. I've seen some good things written about RAIN GODS too.