The argument is easily made that James Lee Burke is one of the finest American crime writers, but if we side-step the convenience of pigeon-holing, one can marshal the argument that he is one of the best US writers in any genre.
The former oilman and social worker – whose first novel was famously rejected no fewer than 111 times – is a supreme stylist, creating utterly compelling novels that pivot on that good ole moral fulcrum on which good and evil balance – and have always balanced – rather precariously.
James Lee Burke’s evil characters are just that – malign and often motiveless sociopaths ‘n’ psychopaths who’ve spent a tad too long festering in desperate penitentiaries such as Angola and now they’re out, and out for vengeance. The good guys are the sort of men you’d like to share a long-necked bottle of Jax beer with. The ensuing novel-length battles between the monsters and Robicheaux’s homicide cop instincts and abilities power the books, keeping those pages turning. But I’d like to posit something a tad different to the usual claims about the man’s writing gifts: namely that he is one of the best nature writers. In this respect he more than competes with fiction writers such as Annie Proulx or out-and-out nature writers such as Barry Lopez, although they have each respectively staked out claims to very different landscapes – Proulx to the lodgepole-pine lands of Wyoming and Lopez to the chill Arctic, or the desert lands.
It came to me, maybe ten or twelve novels into my Burke addiction that what made me outright love his books was the way in which he ended so many of them: seldom did I so want a good book to end. Why? Well, because so many of them conclude with a marvellous epiphany in the natural world, usually out there in the Louisiana swamps, or under Gulf of Mexico skies, punctuated by white pelicans.
At the end of Neon Rain, the Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, the central character in a slew of Burke’s crime capers set in the environs of New Iberia tells us how he’s spent his retirement money, buying a boat-rental and bait business and moving his houseboat from New Orleans through Morgan City and up the Bayon Teche. Dave and his wife Annie rode on the boat for the last miles into New Iberia where they:
ate crawfish étouffèe on the deck and watched our wake slip into the cypress and oak trees along the bank, watched yesterday steal upon us – the black people in straw hats, cane-fishing for goggle-eyed perch, the smoke drifting out through the trees from barbecue fires, the crowds of college-aged kids at fish-fries and crab-boils in the city park, the red leaves that tumbled out of the sky and settled like a whisper on the bayou’s surface. It was the Louisiana I had grown up in, a place that never seemed to change, where it was never a treason to go with the cycle of things and let the season have its way…
It’s that sense that the seasons may inexorably turn but the place itself remains immutable – and in that sense supremely dependable – that permeates so many of the Louisiana books (James Lee Burke divides his time between New Iberia and Missoula, Montana and the books reflect this, with some set in bear country, others the bayou).
It’s a dependability the reader comes to appreciate and rather depend on – that these will be novels full of wide-mouthed gar, Spanish moss drapes on swampy cypresses and vivid sunsets to balance out the mean and vulgar works, and acts, of man, or ‘the folly that causes us to undo all the great gifts of both Earth and Heaven’.
For James Lee Burke, Louisiana is both a ‘fresh-air mental asylum’ and a pillaged Eden, and had been long before BP starting pouring oil into troubled waters, matching broken wells with broken promises.
But when it’s at its most Edenic – when the catfish are biting – the Louisiana wetlands are just that – paradisical. As James Lee Burke says, or maybe paints it in his award 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.