James Lee Burke: Premier Mystery Novelist

Burning Angel

James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries are a strange mixture of gritty crime (Andrew Vachss is a Burke fan), Louisiana regional writing, Southern liberal politics, and magic realism. I just finished re-reading a favorite, Burning Angel, in which Robicheaux and his family are protected by ghost. The Confederate dead march through one book, literally, and in Black Cherry Blues, the crime is solved in conversations with his wife, his father, and his most recent lover, dead two years, thirty years, and a few weeks, respectively.

Burke's novels, like Andrew Vachss' novels, can be repetitious. The assault on Robicheaux's first wife's lover seems almost cut-and-pasted from one novel to a second and then third. I remember being relieved when we finally made it through an entire book without a single nutria scream added to the atmosphere of a night scene. The description of opening the bait shop with Batiste is paraphrased at least five times in eight novels, the story of his father's death is repeated, almost verbatim, three times. Like many genre writers, Burke does not assume that his readers will read his books so close together as to notice such things.

Regional atmosphere and a delightful group of continuing characters provide the foundation for the series. In the decade that has passed since the first novel, Alafair has matured, Clete has gotten his life on a reasonably productive track, and Batiste has begun to seem immortal. The tension of Robicheaux's relationship with his third wife flexes and releases from one book to the next. Robicheaux is humanized by his continuing battle with alcohol, and the nightmares of Vietnam, the murder of his second wife Annie, and his abandonment by his mother, and the death of his father in an oil rig explosion continue to unfold.

With a writer so uniformly good, it's hard to pick a favorite. Usually I make my choice based on which novel I think is most likely to give the new reader a sense of whether Burke is someone they want to read. I think Burning Angel would be my choice, given that criterion.

^  The Neon Rain

Unless you count The Lost Get Back Boogie, Burke's acclaimed early novel that contains many recognizable bits and pieces of the Robicheaux world even though it is not a book in the series at all, Neon Rain is the novel that begins one of the best detective series around. Dave Robicheaux is a demon-haunted Vietnam vet now a police detective in Louisiana. He crosses paths with a handful of government agencies who want his nose out of their business, but their business unfortunately includes covering up the murder of a young black prostitute. By the time the book is done, Robicheaux has lost his job with the New Orleans Police Department, his brother has been the victim of a botched attempt on Dave's life, and Dave has had to face some of those demons.

Chronology: Dave meets Annie, whom he will marry, his second wife. He is suspended from the NOPD, reinstated, and resigns to open his bait shop. Clete departs for Latin America.

^  Heaven's Prisoners

There's no question that Heaven's Prisoners was the point at which people began to take serious notice of the series. For some time, I had myself convinced that it was the first book, and I have met others who thought the same thing. I even checked a few minutes ago to confirm that Burke didn't write them out of chronological order. The climax of this novel (not the end) is one of the most brilliant and daring I've ever read. It's not a plot spoiler to tell you that Robicheaux's wife Annie is gunned down in their bed. The scene is as shocking as that terrible moment in Stephen King's Pet Sematary when the protagonist's toddler is killed by a truck before his eyes.

As in The Neon Rain, the action revolves around a connection between the Federal government and Latin America. Annie and Dave rescue a little girl from a plane that crashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and as a result they are dragged into a federal investigation involving, among other things, a Mafia leader whom Dave grew up with, Bubba Rocque. No longer a cop, Robicheaux commits a few acts of vigilant justice and what he calls self-defense and one of them, his brutal assault on a minor hit man who had beaten Dave up earlier, is the direct cause of the accidental murder of Annie. Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and Burke does a great job of depicting his disintegration in the face of this guilt, as well as the revenge and justice that eventually redeems him.

The Robicheaux novels often feature villains who, if they are not likeable, are men Dave grew up with and cannot simply treat as enemies. Bubba Rocque is the first of these. He may have no essential decency, but he does have principles, and his role in the conclusion of the novel is consistent and tragic. The novels abound in fascinating minor characters, many of them introduced here: Alafair and Batiste, Robicheaux's adopted daughter and the wonderful old man who runs Dave's bait shop; the old Negro barkeeper, 'Tee Neg, who is Dave's AA mentor; and Minos Dautrieve, the FBI man who is his friend and sometime adversary. There is even a bbriefmention, I think, of Bootsie Giacano, who will become his third wife later in the series. Clete Purcell is conspicuously absent. (I read a review of the film that said casting Joe Don Baker in the role was "perfect." Joe Don Baker is also conspicuously absent, since Clete isn't in the film either.)

Heaven's Prisoners is not the strongest book in the series, and the film did Burke no credit. Among other things, the powerful ending was discarded for something simpler and less satisfying. Alec Baldwin is so badly miscast as Robicheaux that one can forgive the error only by remembering that he produced the film and undoubtedly meant well. Good motives, poor execution. Joe Don Baker should play Robicheaux, and the biggest articulate defensive center in the NFL should be cast as Clete.

Chronology: Dave and Annie married. They rescue Alafair and adopt her. Annie murdered. Dave is on and off at the New Iberia Sheriff's Department.

^  Black Cherry Blues

An old friend of Dave's turns up, connected some dubious businesses, and he nearly gets killed when someone sets fire to his cabin. In the fire a nice young girl they both knew is killed, and Robicheaux starts making inquiries. His friend Dixie overheard two thugs discussing a murder in Montana. Dave makes some trouble for the men and they threaten to kill Alafair, to get Robicheaux to stop meddling. Robicheaux responds with one of his over-the-top acts of vigilante justice, and he is framed for murdering one of the thugs. A bail bond later, he is on his way to Montana to clear his name. This is the most eccentric of the novels, an interlude before Robicheaux settles permanently into New Iberia. Two women who might become Robicheaux's next wife figure in the story, Clete's Indian girlfriend (yeah, I know) and the Catholic schoolteacher who takes care of Alafair once they arrive in Montana.

This book owes a great deal to Burke's early novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie, which also recounts the story of a Louisiana boy who goes to Montana to clear his head and crosses paths with some big businesses not to worried about ethics. Here the big businesses is oil and the ethics involve American Indian rights. Throw in a mobster with ambitions to add casino gambling to the Montana rez, and you have a dangerous mix. A key figure of the book is one of Burke's charming Southern eccentrics and losers, Dixie Lee Pugh, one-time rock star, fulltime drunk, and epitome of poor judgment. This is the book that establishes Clete's character, and it begins the thread of supernaturalism that some readers find troubling in the plots.

The novel begins with a painful reconstruction of Annie's murder, one of many dreams that haunt Dave and challenge his attempts to stay on the wagon. The book is filled with suicidal dreams that begin to take on a life of their own. As the story winds to its conclusion, three of Dave's dead provide him with advice that helps clear up the central mystery, the murder of two Indian activists.

Chronology: Less than two years after adopting Alafair. Clete returns from Latin America, mixed up rather dubiously with the Mafia geeks.

^  A Morning for Flamingos

The plot revolves around an escaped convict and a drug deal meant to catch some high-level mobsters. Robicheaux is shot during the escape of a dangerous killer and a teenaged boy convicted of murder. The killer, Boggs, is connected to the mob and to the crime Tee Beau (the younger convict) was involved in. Dave goes undercover and becomes a friend of a mobster, Tony Cardo, with wheelchair-confined child. The plot threads braid together at the end in a series of climaxes: the confrontation with the mob followed by the facedown with Boggs.

This novel gives us Robicheaux's first encounter with voodoo, in the form of a witch who runs a small brothel that connections crimes and antagonists. All the novels have explored the potentials for a supernatural stratum beneath the everyday. Here, the witch predicts and describes Bootsie's illness before Dave has an inkling of it. Since Bootsie is mob connected, the woman may be playing sleight of hand with inside information, but that explanation doesn't come up. Surrounded by his own loquacious ghosts, Dave is willing to believe.

Chronology: About two years after Annie's death. Clete returns to New Orleans, opens a bar. Dave marries Bootsie, knowing she has lupus.

^  A Stained White Radiance

A Stained White Radiance

Because of Robicheaux's permanent residence in Louisiana, most of the books include people he grew up with. A characteristic plot element is the return into his life of a person he has known since childhood, followed by the examination of that person's life. This simultaneously furthers the plot and gives us, in glimpses, a fuller understanding of Dave himself. Nowhere is this plot element handled better than here, where an entire family, the Sonniers, is entangled in a web of lies, crimes, and deceptions that cculminatein what appears to be an assassination attempt on a demagogic racist politician.

Incest, child abuse, and parricide all figure in the plot, along with mob connections to oil. There are three Sonniers: Weldon, Lyle, and Drew. Weldon is an oilman, son of a wildcatter who blew up in a rig accident. Lyle, a suicidal Vietnam vet, found Jesus, white suits, and a profitable career in the charisma business. Drew lives a life of in-your-face liberalism (missionary work in Latin America, Amnesty International, civil right causes) funded by her oil lease money.

A sidenote of sorts: The cover of the paperback edition of this book is brilliant. A Morning for Flamingos has nothing to do with the flamingo on the cover. The cover of A Stained White Radiance will haunt you after you finish this Faulkneresque tour through Louisiana's swamp of family destruction.

^  In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead

When I try to choose a "best" from the Robicheaux novels, invariably I end up spinning from one to another like a kid in a toy store. This one, and Burning Angel, and Sunset Limited; try any one of the three, and if you don't like it, you won't want to read any more of them. Electric Mist handles all the trademark elements beautifully. A minor mobster, Julio Balboni, another one of those moral cripples Dave grew up with, has laundered some money into a Hollywood film being shot in New Iberia. A young prostitute has been murdered. A snuff film turns up. A revenge killing forty years ago figures in the action. A serial killer of children. And most controversial, the palpable presence of General Thomas A. Hood, a century dead, visible to Alafair and her friend, visible to the alcohol-sodden Elrod Sykes, movie star and redeemable jerk, engaged in heavy conversations with Robicheaux, and instrumental in the attempt to rescue Alafair late in the novel.

A key moment occurs at a cast party where Dave is given LSD in a soda. He is nearly killed, and the logical explanation for the hallucinatory scenes with the confederate soldiers is flashbacks. But that does not explain Alafair and her friend Poteet talking to the general, nor does it account for the impossible photograph Dave tries to explain to her at the end. LSD is convenient; Dave believes, and we have to as well if we accept the world of the novel. A lot of readers don't, and this supernatural element is much complained about here and in the later books.

^   Dixie City Jam

Robicheaux is hired to find the German submarine sunk in the Gulf of Mexico (which figured as minor element in a previous novel), and he ends up entangled with white supremacists intent on getting the sub themselves. This novel introduces some of Burke's most memorable characters: Hippo Bimstine, the grossly fat Jewish millionaire who has hired Dave to find the Nazi sub, New Orleans police officer Lucinda Bergeron and her son Zoot, Tommy Lonighan, Will Buchwalter. Burke also develops Clete Purcell and Batiste, the latter figuring in a subplot that looks for a while as if it will be the main story. And Nate Baxter, the crooked cop who haunts Robicheaux through a series of novels and here comes close to being killed.

This may be the most violent of the novels. Buchwalter may be the creepiest villain in any of the books, and the suspense in the climax is terrific. It's not my favorite of the novels, but I recommend it with no reservations.

^   Burning Angel

What Sonny Boy Marsallus brought back from Vietnam was total mystic craziness. Another of Burke's minor hoods in trouble with the big guys, Marsallus is a professional soldier who walked through a firefight untouched in El Salvador, a small-time gambler and hustler who crosses the big families (notably the Giacanos) by staking thieves and prostitutes for a chance at a clean life. Her wears a tattoo of the Virgin and souvenirs from a "Somoza sensitivitcouplesion." And his girlfriend is tortured to death by a coule of hitmen looking for a journal he gave Dave a copy of.

That's how it begins. A freakshow villain named Sweet Pea Chastain figures in the action, along with a wealthy lawyer whose family skeletons go back to the days of Jean Lafitte. The story of Ruth Jean Fontenot and her family is a key to the action, and Burke introduces some new continuing characters (police officer Helen Soileau) and throws some new twists into an old one (Clete Purcell), and his marriage to Bootsie takes some new turns. Halfway through the novel, Sonny Boy Marsallus has been blown to pieces by a professional sniper. But death is a relative thing in Louisiana, and Sonny Boy won't stay death till he's paid his debts.

As Burke gets deeper into this series, the serious themes are growing. Burning Angel is as haunted by history as the most Gothic Faulkner novel. Semi-literate Sonny Boy knows about Lafitte's barracoon, and the excavation of those slave quarters is as important to the conclusion as race relations during the Second World War and the Iran-Contra years. This is country where your family tree grows for centuries in the same soil, and Burke has the gift for making history the bones and organs of a swiftly contemporary body of work.

Chronology: Dave and Bootsie have been married about four years.

^  Cadillac Jukebox

A governor with mob connections and a wife whose secret is in the hands of the Giacano girl she went to school with are at the center of this novel. The story is haunted by a strange old man who took the fall, a generation ago, for a Klan killing, an old school sociopath whose racism is tempered by misanthropy so absolute that one is tempted to say his hatred of blacks is just a detail. Whatever the secret of the governor is, it's worth bribing Robicheaux with a position in the government and, when that fails, throwing the governor's wife, an old girlfriend, at him.

^  Sunset Limited

This was the point at which I began buying Burke in hardcover. Burke's novels have the characteristic identified by structuralist critics some years ago in folk literature: They revisit and retell fundamental plot elements not so much repetitiously as withfugall insistence, growing, coloring, developing. Here, once again, the subplot involves a film crew. But the main story is the crucifixion of a labor organizer thirty years ago, whose body was found by Robicheaux and his father, nailed to the side of a barn. His children, Meg and Cisco, come back to New Iberia and bring with them dirty Hollywood money. While Robicheaux gets entangled in the investigation of a police brutality charge and an FBI scam that could get a friend killed, the murder of the labor organizer drifts tothee foreground, the key to what appear to be random acts of violence.

Increasingly, Burke is working with mythic themes and a sense of history more consistent with One Hundred Years of Solitude than The Big Sleep. Here, the death of Jack Flynn is a moment of cosmic implication, haunting the novel. It is no accident that when the crime is solved, one piece of evidence is a towel imprinted with Flynn's blood like St. Veronica's veil. Burke tells us it is all connects; we live the same story again and again till we get it right.

Chronology: About four years after Burning Angel.

^  Purple Cane Road

Full Review of Purple Cane RoadIn Purple Cane Road, everything Robicheaux has done to become a better human being is tested. He is presented with an investigation tries all his restraints, the murder of his own mother. invesitgating another crime, he discovers that his mother, who has haunted the novels since the beginning, was murdered. Mae Guillory/Robicheaux was also a whore, the informant explains, and murdered by a couple of crooked cops because she was a witness to another crime.

The two crimes are connected by a tangle of characters and motives; the rest of the novel ties a hundred threads and themes snugly together. When everything comes clear, the persuasiveness of the prose helps us set aside the mountain of coincidences. The craft of a Burke novel is impeccable. In less practiced hands, the machinery of coincidence and synchrony would fail. He is a beautiful stylist, a writer of relentless integrity, one of our finest. Most of the Robicheaux novels are about redemption, and the redemptions that conclude this novel are the most surprising and satisfying. Purple Cane Road ranks with James Lee Burke's best work.

^  Jolie Blonde's Bounce

Like Tony Hillerman's Coyote Waits, Jolie Blonde's Bounce ends in that most tragic mode, with the answer we did not want to hear the inevitable truth. For that alone, I rank it among the better Robicheaux novels. Certainly the plot moves rapidly and dizzyingly forward, as Robicheaux investigates two murders and in the process uncovers more than two murderers. Legion Guidry is his best version yet of manifest malignance, and his fate a classic from Burke's magic realist toolkit. The atmosphere, tuned to a brilliant black teenager's modern arrangement of Louisana's signature song, "Ma Jolie Blonde," is rich and believeable and for all its familiarity new. This is the last book for Dave's wife Bootsie, worth savoring for that, like the last spoonful of a fine wine.

I won't fault the book on a single count. Reviewers have complained that Robicheaux is becoming "less likable" and I am reminded of the Pueblo distinction between being loved and liked: "like" you earn; "love" is unconditional. Like Bootsie, those of us who love Dave Robicheaux may be embarrassed by his violence, his oddly Southern strait-laced language attitudes, his talent for saying the wrong thing, and his obsession with the sins of wealth, but we won't turn our backs. He is a friend we love the same way he loved the impossible Clete Purcell. If you don't know what we see in him, your loss.

^  Last Car to Elysian Fields

Last Car to Elysian Fields is an excruciating novel. Those of us who have followed Dave Robicheaux's fictional life weathered the horrifying death of his second wife and have lived with the third for too many years to easily handle her death, however certain it was from the day, many novels back, when she was diagnosed with lupus. She is dead. It's no spoiler; she is dead from the first sentence, and Robicheaux is not coping.

This is not a strong book in the series, and it has justly been lambasted for reworking old material almost to death. To the fan, it will have some appeal. There is the promotion of Helen Soileau, a strong side character, to police chief and therefore Dave's exasperated boss, and the heavy hint of a coming affair with a black policewoman to freshen things up. But other than that, it's the same old stuff. A crime against a black man fifty years ago, its resonance into the present, a crime in the present, none of the deaths in Dave's jurisdiction, and none of the solutions helped by his obsession with the corruption of the rich. It all rings true, but we've heard it before. We tolerate it because we want Dave to make through the pain of losing his wife.

^  Crusader's Cross

Those of us who worried that Elysian Fields was Burke's retirement novel for Dave Robicheaux were a bit heartened by the startling personal twist at the end. The good news is that we were right to be hopeful. Not only does Crusader's Cross continue the series, but it is one of the better novels in a series that includes not one, but a handful of the best mystery novels I've ever read. Those of us who follow the Robicheaux books know how to sort out the new from the familiar. Like a symphony, Burke's novels are all made up of the same instruments, each doing what they do best: the rich degenerate with a guilty secret, the cynical but good-hearted old black woman, a few drug-addled luppies (the Louisana strain of yuppies), some plangent memories, a bit of history.... To complain about the familiar is like whining because Mozart keeps using violins.

The personal story advances with a rush, almost too fast, and the mystery–a set of killings that suggest a serial killer–is vintage Robicheaux: too many suspects, collateral bad guys thick as vultures on a corpse, and a clue deeply embedded in the ever-current past. Robicheaux tracks down a prostitute/girlfriend his brother fell for and lost forty years ago, and things click together all hinges and sockets. The familiar, yes, but as always, Burke twists new from the instruments. Surely there will be more. The Robicheaux novels are not mysteries, they are a life lived before our eyes.

^  Pegasus Descending

The Robicheaux franchise is still going strong, and this is still the class act in contemporary mystery fiction. That said, Pegasus Descending is not a stellar addition to the series. It's an enjoyable read if you regard Dave and his friends as family, but I suspect that a reader starting here would wonder what the fuss was all about. The fact that everybody who knows Dave talks about his obsession with getting the rich does not excuse Burke's repetitious plots. I'm pleased that he did a few new riffs on the theme, adding complexity in an unexpected place, but on the whole, I found myself muttering "Uh-uh," every time the chorus (Helen Soileau, Clete Purcell, a small backup band) complains about Dave's fixation.

What's new here? A redeemed bad guy for a change. In a way, two. Some firming up of Helen Soileau into a person rather than a type. A strong sense that Clete's days are numbered. On the down side, a "big finish" that was a bit too Saturday morning serial for my taste. The death of a young woman hovers over the action like a storm passing, and the novel brings that primary key to a satisfying conclusion. Too much is familiar music, but the familiar is, after all, why we come back.

Non-fans can give this one a skip. For the rest of us, yes, Burke does a great job of keeping Dave's advancing age realistic. Folks have started calling him "Pop," and appropriately. And anyone who thinks a man his age hasn't the stamina for his violence needs to get out more. Burke's New Iberia is a place we will miss when he retires. The novels may all be fiddle tunes, but this man can fiddle to beat the devil.

Other Novels

Cimmaron Rose

^  Cimarron Rose

It's understandable that a writer who has dedicated himself to a series character for around ten years might want to take a break, and Burke has stepped away from Louisiana to create another Southern detective, Billie Bob Holland, a lawyer in Deaf Smith County (only in Texas!) connected to Houston money, less haunted than Robicheaux, but ultimately much less interesting. The odd thing about the two Billie Bob novels is that the plot summaries are virtually indistinguishable. It is as if he used the same outline to write both novels. The effect is so strong that when I first read Heartwood, the book that follows Cimarron Rose, I found myself thinking early on that I'd already read it and somehow forgotten. A hundred pages from the end, I found myself worrying that my worst fears were about to be realized and sure enough, I knew everything as it happened, down to the identity and fate of the killer. Very odd.


If you really like Billie Bob Holland, read them both. Otherwise, maybe not. Different frosting don't make it a different cake. What is it about Texans, by the way, that encourages them to give their children trivial or even humiliating names? I actually met Ima Hogg, the legendary Texas philanthropist, thought by some to be an urban legend. Her pea-brained father, a former Texas governor I think, named her sister Ura. There are people in Texas named (not just nicknamed) Bubba, and the Houston Oilers football coach, Bum Phillips, was not the only famous "Bum" in Texas; Bum Bright, if I remember correctly, was a Texas A&M philanthropist. It's the only place I've ever lived where you run into people with things like "Willie" on their birth certificates. Giving everybody two trivial names (George Willie, Willie Bubba, Bubba Joe, Joe Bob, Bobbie Sue, Sue Ellen, Ellie Gee (Ole Jimmie Hogg missed that one)) is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, in Texas, everything is just the tip of the iceberg.


The third Holland book finally manages bring the series to life. Ironically, the key is sending Billie Bob off to Montana, like Robicheaux before him (Black Cherry Blues) and like the seemingly autobiographical hero of The Lost Get-Back Boogie. He goes to counsel and fish with a war buddy, Doc Voss, and finds himself in the middle of a web of land development, survivalist enclaves, and ugly, ugly murder. The best thing in the series is Holland's unacknowledged love, Temple Carrol, the PI he finally recognizes his feelings for in this third novel. Like Angie Gennaro in Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie novels (Darkness, Take My Hand, etc.), she is a true partner who happens to be a strong, sexy woman.

In the Moon of Red Ponies

I can't shake the feeling that these books just don't work. This one reads like an attempt to cash in on Burke's trademarks. We have some good grotesques and some nightmarish bad guys, and more Temple Carrol talking tough and generally doing her Angie Gennaro impressions, and the result is about as persuasive as Robert Parker's embarrassing "westerns." Enjoy.

Some links for more information on Burke:

Biographical notes and a lot of other information can be found at the James Lee Burke Internet Guide. For brief notes on Burke (and just about any other mystery writer you are interested in), a good place to begin is The Tangled Web. It's pretty cosmopolitan, but with a British focus. This personal response to the Robicheaux novels is fun, too.

Don't bother to try to find Burke at his publisher's site, by the way. Amazon lists Bantam Books as the publisher, but the book lists Doubleday as the publisher (including a "www.doubleday.com" on the flyleaf, because the "kwell dudes" in marketing know where it's "happened"). At the Bantam site, the best you can do is get a list of available books (three) from an author search. At Doubleday, in spite of the URL, he doesn't even exist. Search on author, title, and even ISBN, and you will get nothing. The "Burke" page that goes with Purple Cane Road is actually at Random House. Random House, of course, owns everybody. But because Burke was flavor of the month last month, this page is undocumented and unreachable by search, although at this time (Sept 2000), they haven't taken it down yet. (This month's fotm is Margaret Atwood, by the way, who richly deserves a few minutes of her publisher's regard.)

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