On James Lee Burke
For many of my generation of mystery writers, James Lee Burke is the greatest living author in our field, and one of the most accomplished literary stylists in modern American letters. For better or worse, I would not be writing without his influence, and all that I have written, I have written in his shadow. To borrow a phrase used by Jack Nicholson of Marlon Brando: “When he dies, everybody else moves up one.”
Burke’s preeminence is due, in no small part, to the manner in which he came to the mystery novel. Before publishing, in 1987, The Neon Rain, the first book to feature the recurring character of Dave Robicheaux, he had read little in the genre, the work of Raymond Chandler and James Crumley apart, so he approached the task of writing a mystery largely freed from any obligation to the perceived requisites. The books that have emerged in the decades since are, in a sense, only incidentally mysteries: they are, first and foremost, literate, literary, socially engaged novels. To read them is to encounter a great novelist applying his gifts to a sometimes underrated form, reinventing and reinvigorating it by his presence.
On this basis alone, he deserves his place in our Pantheon, but underlying the elegance and beauty of his prose, and an engagement with the natural world that is virtually unrivalled in modern fiction, is a profound moral sensibility, one that is informed by Burke’s own personal struggles and convictions. Burke is a liberal (that much abused word, utilised as an insult by those who least understand its meaning) in the classic Steinbeck/ Dorothy Day mode, with a passionate hatred of social injustice, and a hardwired instinct to take the side of the weak and the powerless. As a consequence, compassion and empathy infuse his work, while his political and social commentary, although consistent, is carefully, and subtly, couched. For example, references to the war in Vietnam in the novels, a defining moment in Robicheaux’s past, act not only as markers to that period but as metaphors for later, dirtier conflicts, particularly those in Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Equally, Burke has made no secret of his own demons: his early difficulties with alcohol, his frustration at being out of print for most of his thirties while struggling to raise a family, and the resulting bitterness that almost tipped him into nihilism. His salvation was no simple matter. Strengthened by the love and support of his wife, Pearl, he attained sobriety through the 12-step program, and rediscovered his childhood Catholicism. He also found himself published again when The Lost Get-Back Boogie, which had been under submission for nine years, and had been rejected more than a hundred times, was finally published by the Louisiana University Press in 1986.
Knowing something of Burke himself better enables us to understand how his greatest literary creation came into being. Dave Robicheaux is a complex character, both humane in his judgements, and intensely, movingly human in his failings. His intolerance of wickedness can, at times, make him seem as stern as the God of the Old Testament, but this, I suspect, is a reflection of Burke’s own belief that there are no little evils: sins, both major and minor, mortal and venial, are born of the same mother, and great wrongs grow from small seeds. As Victor Hugo once wrote, “Men become accustomed to poison by degrees”; or, as Burke himself has put it, rather more wittily, “Give the Devil an air-conditioner, and you’ll never get him out of the office.”
Yet an intolerance for evil is not the same as an unwillingness to forgive sins. Robicheaux, like his creator, is too aware of his own frailties to pass sentence rashly upon others, and, similarly, Burke is too nuanced a writer to allow Robicheaux to carry the sole moral authority in his books. Clete Purcel, his former partner, is given crucial opportunities to question Robicheaux’s occasional inflexibility, and similar criticism is permitted to be leveled at Robicheaux by the women who love and respect him. But it is also those closest to him who recognise that the person who is hardest on Robicheaux is Robicheaux himself, and such intense self-criticism, if left unchecked, can itself become a form of vanity.
Ultimately, what Robicheaux and those who act alongside him understand is the truth of the words of their creator’s namesake, the Irish writer and philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” To stand by while others suffer is to be complicit in their sufferings; to attempt to bring those sufferings to an end, and thus remove a little of the evil from the world, even at great cost to oneself, is an act of empathy and justice that, if one believes in God, brings us closer to the Divine and, even if one does not believe, makes one a better person for the effort.
The Robicheaux novels are one of the crowning glories of mystery fiction, and The Glass Rainbow is a worthy addition to their number. Long may Burke continue to write, for I’m in no hurry to move up that one place . . .