Thursday, May 16, 2024


HARBOR LIGHTS by James Lee Burke (Atlantic, 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Harbor Lights is a story collection from one of the most popular and widely acclaimed icons of American fiction, featuring a never-before-published novella. These eight stories move from the marshlands on the Gulf of Mexico to the sweeping plains of Colorado to prisons, saloons, and trailer parks across the South, weaving together love, friendship, violence, survival, and revenge

For fifty years James Lee Burke has been leading the way among American novelists in general, not just crime writers. His lyrical, multi-layered explorations of the darkness, addiction, and evil that can exist within humanity, alongside white-hot light, have raised the bar and inspired countless authors.

Years ago, at the Sydney Writers Festival, I watched superb Irish crime writer John Connolly (author of the Charlie Parker series) stand onstage and say, “James Lee Burke is our greatest living crime writer… you can disagree with me, but you’d be wrong”. Like Connolly and so many others, I hold Burke in extremely high regard, so I was thrilled to dive into his recent short story collection, Harbor Lights

This collection brings some of the same, and something different, for long-time Burke fans: there’s no Dave Robicheaux and it’s a collection of eight thematically and genealogically entwined short stories, including a previously unpublished Holland family novella, rather than a single tale, but there’s plenty of what we’ve come to expect. In each story he soaks us in time and place, abuts richly evoked settings with stark violence, and makes us witness to cruelty and humanity through the eyes of downtrodden characters, while crafting a semi-permeable membrane between eras.

Readers are swept across a variety of landscapes and eras in American history, visiting with hardscrabble lives touched by some of the big issues of the times, and as the blurb says, ‘from the marshlands on the Gulf of Mexico to the sweeping plains of Colorado to prisons, saloons, and trailer parks across the South, weaving together love, friendship, violence, survival, and revenge.’ Amen. 

Two prison inmates are set up to fight each other in “Big Midnight Special”; a history professor takes matters into his own hands after his daughter is beaten up at a bar in “The Assault”; a farmer and his grandson try to protect Mexican immigrants in “Deportees”; federal agents intimidate a war veteran who reported a burning oil tanker in the titular tale. 

Overall, Harbor Lights is an impressive collection from a modern master of storytelling (not just crime fiction), who oh-so-deservedly was recently named a recipient of the prestigious CWA Diamond Dagger, which honours authors “whose crime-writing careers have been marked by sustained excellence, and who have made a significant contribution to the genre”. Indeed. 

Burke should have been one of the easiest ‘yay’ votes for the Diamond Dagger committee in years.

Years ago, I heard another author say, while debating ‘literary fiction vs popular fiction’, that if ever confronted by snobbish critics who turn up their nose at crime and mystery writing, or refuse to acknowledge the wordsmithery and literary quality now contained within the genre, you could just throw a copy of a Peter Temple book at them. Indeed. Or perhaps, we could now push an entire shelf of James Lee Burke atop such sinners. As for us crime and thriller readers, Harbor Lights whets the appetite for backlist revisiting as well as whatever comes next from a living legend

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

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