Influences: James Lee Burke

I don’t know if my fellow Maine Crime Writers are up for this game, but I’m curious to hear about the crime authors who inspired you to begin writing in this genre. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent from a person’s novels which other authors had a profound impact on their creation. I’ve cited my affection for P.D. James before, but obviously I write nothing like Baroness James of Holland Park. I’ll get the ball rolling in the hope that someone else will pick it up.

Because I write about a Maine game warden, my books are often grouped with those of C.J. Box (who writes about a Wyoming warden) or with Nevada Barr (who writes about a National Park Service ranger). That’s exceedingly good company in which to find oneself, and I understand the “read-alike” thinking. Box, Barr, and I all write mysteries set in the outdoors, and we take great care to describe the natural with the same attention to detail that someone like James Ellroy brings to the naked city.

But if you asked which contemporary crime writer has influenced me the most, I would have to say James Lee Burke. I first encountered Burke in a college creative writing class. His short story, “The Convict,” appeared in the 1986 Best American Short Stories anthology edited by Raymond Carver, and I remember being blown away by the vividness of its descriptions. Burke published the story while the character of his great Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, was still taking shape in his imagination, but you can hear his signature style in the opening paragraph:

My father was a popular man in New Iberia, even though his ideas were different from most people’s and his attitudes were uncompromising. On Friday afternoons he and my mother and I would drive down the long yellow dirt road through the sugarcane fields until it became blacktop and followed the Bayou Teche into town, where my father would drop my mother off at Musemeche’s Produce Market and take me with him to the bar at the Frederic Hotel. The Frederic was a wonderful old place with slot machines and potted palms and marble columns in the lobby, and a gleaming mahogany and brass barroom that was cooled by long-bladed wooden fans. I always sat at a table with a bottle of Dr. Nut and a glass of ice and watched with fascination the drinking rituals of my father and his friends: the warm handshakes, the pats on the shoulder, the laughter that was genuine but never uncontrolled. In the summer, which seemed like the only season in south Louisiana, the men wore seersucker suits and straw hats, and the amber light in their glasses of whiskey with ice and their Havana cigars and Picayune cigarettes held between their ringed fingers made them seem everything gentlemen and my father’s friends should be.

Vivid descriptions and a nostalgic wistfulness are the hallmarks of Burke’s prose. All of his books, or at least the ones I’ve read, take place after a fall from grace. That prior Eden might have been an illusion in a child’s eyes, but the world seemed to have been a better place once, long ago. Modern America is downright hellish in Burke’s books: a pandemonium populated by an ever-expanding horde of physically, psychologically, and morally deformed characters. (The morally deformed ones are the worst and tend to belong to the upper levels of society.) Let’s just say that James Lee Burke takes a dim view of human nature.

Against these degenerates stands a deeply flawed but righteous man, Detective Dave Robicheaux. (Burke has several series going, but his other main protagonists, attorney Billy Bob Holland and his cousin Sheriff Hackberry Holland, seem like cuttings sliced from the same cypress.) Big-hearted but quick to anger, generous to a fault but brutally violent, Robicheaux is one of the great characters in contemporary literature. Like his creator, Dave is a practicing Catholic and a recovering alcoholic. In his eyes, human beings are self-wounding sinners, and he sees them with a clarity that only comes from having hit one too many bottoms. Here he is in A Stained White Radiance:

As a police officer it has been my experience that pedophiles are able to operate and stay functional over long periods of time and victimize scores, even hundreds, of children, because no one wants to believe his or her own intuitions about the symptoms in a perpetrator. We are repelled and sickened by the images that our minds suggest, and we hope against hope that problem is in reality simply one of misperceptions.

Systematic physical cruelty toward children belongs in the same shoebox. Nobody wants to deal with it. I cannot remember one occasion, in my entire life, when I saw one adult interfere in a public place with the mistreatment of a child at the hands of another adult.

Burke wrote those words in 1992, nearly two decades before the world ever heard the name Jerry Sandusky.

My wife and I talk about what we call “Dave Robicheaux moments” we have witnessed. If a pack of drunk men are catcalling girls on a corner, Dave doesn’t cross the street to avoid them. If a mother slaps her child in a supermarket parking lot, he doesn’t stand by gawking, as you or I might be inclined to do; he intervenes. Robicheaux is a man of action—often violent action—who steps into situations where the rest of us fear to tread.

If this all sounds unremittingly bleak, I am afraid it is. There are few moments of emotional uplift in a James Lee Burke novel. There are, however, many passages of gorgeous writing, usually focused on the natural world. Take this paragraph from the Edgar-winning Black Cherry Blues:

Late that afternoon the wind shifted out of the south and you could smell the wetlands and just a hint of salt in the air. Then a bank of thunderheads slid across the sky from the Gulf, tumbling across the sun like cannon smoke, and the light gathered in the oaks and cypress and willow trees and took a strange green cast as though you were looking at the world through water. It rained hard, dancing on the bayou and the lily pads in the shallows, clattering on my gallery and rabbit hutches, lighting the freshly plowed fields with a black sheen.

Now I’ve never been to Louisiana, but I can see that image so clearly in my mind’s eye that it reads like a memory. It’s the sort of powerful nature writing to which I aspire in my own books. If I can transport a reader to the Maine woods the way Burke brings us routinely to the bayous of Louisiana, I will consider my work well done.

Burke’s writing can get a little overripe at times (so could Chandler’s, though), and his plots seem to involve lots bad people showing up on Dave’s doorstep, or Dave showing up on theirs, for the purposes of exchanging threatening words with each other. Then there will be a shooting or a fistfight. At one point in the book, some scarred and haunted man will torture another scarred and haunted man in a desolate, windswept place.

But you don’t read a James Lee Burke novel to solve a puzzle-box mystery. You read if for the power of the prose and the strength of the characterizations, and for the way it returns you to a fully realized world that resembles the one we live in is so closely it forces you to take stock of your own moral and physical courage. Burke refuses to comfort or condescend to his readers, and that is what makes him great.

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7 Responses to Influences: James Lee Burke

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Great blog, Paul. I love his writing, which sometimes segues into the surreal, just a people’s minds do in the face of violence. As a former attorney for the Maine Department of Human Services, though, I often wanted DHS to intervene and take Alafair away because Robicheaux was such a careless father. And his girlfriends kept getting blown up. Ah…but we’re inspired by the writing.

    When I started my Thea Kozak series, I gave her “godparents.” Sara Paretsky was her godmother, to help her be a strong, independent woman, and Dick Francis was her godfather, to inspire decent, brave, unselfaware characters who were ordinary people. They have served their goddaughter well.


  2. The writer who had the greatest influence on my writing was the late Dorothy Dunnett (yes, the source of my pseudonym). She wrote both massive historical chronicles and light caper mysteries. I maintain that her six volume Lymond Chronicles is one long historical mystery novel, since only at the end is the full truth revealed. You only need to read the first scene in The Game of Kings (the one with Lymond and the drunken sow) to see what a fantastic wordsmith she was. The contemporary mysteries feature a sleuth named Johnson Johnson and his yacht. They are a bit dated now, but are still fun to read. The last one had the U.S. title Send A Fax to the Casbah.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Much enjoyed, Paul! The books that specifically inspired my Shadows Antique Print series were John Dunning’s wonderful series about antiquarian book dealer Cliff Janeway.The mysteries I most wish I had written are those in Sharon McCrumb’s Appalachian Ballad series, which brilliantly shifts from the past to the present and makes them one. And my current inspiration? Louise Penny, whose Inspector Gamache series set in Three Pines shows me that characters and setting can, indeed, carry a mystery … but plot twists and wonderful writing are essentials as well.

  4. James Lee Burke is one of the most astonishing writers in America today, in my opinion. His books always stir such deep emotions in me both for their beauty and for the ugliness in some of the people. I love Dave Robichioux — I love his violence and where it comes from. My favorite of Burke’s books is “Jolie Blon’s Bounce.” I think Legion Guidry is the most purely terrifying character I’ve ever come across in a contemporary noel.

  5. John Clark says:

    I love James Lee Burke’s writing. I discovered him in a stack of paperbacks at a camp we rented almost 20 years ago near Roque Bluffs. My two favorites are The Lost Getback Boogie and Tin Roof Blowdown which I think gives readers a better emotional understanding of Katrina than any other piece of fiction involving that disaster. Robichaud stands beside Matt Scudder (created by Lawrence Block) as my favorite protagonists in the mystery genre because they are both in recovery and their struggles are real as hell. Robichaud’s friendship with Cletus Purcell is something few non-recovery people would understand, but really adds to the series.

  6. Barb Ross says:

    My strongest mystery influence is Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series. He’s an ordinary man, no super powers, happily married, but dogged, and with a tremendous understanding of people. For short stories, it’s Alice Munro who can get me as sucked in in 7000 words as I get in a novel.

    Not that I can write like either of these celebrated octogenarians, but we can all have aspirations.

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