James Lee Burke


When James Lee Burke warns you not to wander the streets of New Orleans unless you know the place as well as he does, you immediately start to imagine exactly the sort of consequences he might have in mind.

Having your hands nailed to a tree by a biker, for example; your face shoved into the blades of an aeroplane propeller or a cloth bag, soaked in insecticide, and tied around your head. That sort of thing.

In Burke’s rich, elaborate crime stories, ‘In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead’, violence in New Orleans is sudden and vicious, simultaneously both imaginative and horribly mundane: a bicycle spoke used to put an eye out, the nozzle of a garden hose whipping the skin off a man’s back, the butt of a pool cue breaking across someone’s nose. In Burke’s hands, even socks (filled with sand, struck across the back of the head, no prints, no evidence) become brutally effective weapons for ‘translating someone’s brains into marmalade.’

‘Yah,’ Burke admits, grinning. ‘I knew the guy who used to use socks like that. As for the pool cue, well… it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Ha.’

Of course, in person, Burke couldn’t be friendlier. A beefy bear of a man, Burke exudes the earthy warmth and charm of a typical Cajun country boy, his large, coloured sports shirt hanging over blue jeans slung so low round his waist it’s a miracle they stay up, turn-ups on the flares the size of large buckets, and a cheery ‘thank you ma’am’ for the waitress.

This is the sort of inherent contradiction that sets Burke apart as a crime writer. ‘… Electric Mist…’ is the sixth in the series of stories about Burke’s chief protagonist and alter ego, Cajun detective ex-Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic, Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux.

Burke admits a lot of his work is biographical (even Robicheaux’s daughter is named after Burke’s daughter Alafair) and that, having worked as a social worker on Skid Row in LA, and with a few ops for friends, he doesn’t need to do much research.

Robicheaux’s complexity and the depth with which the character is drawn is, along with the pure quality of Burke’s writing, what sets Burke’s crime fiction apart from the usual guns-n-drugs competition.

Brilliantly-written and razor-sharp, early Robicheaux thrillers like ‘87’s ‘The Neon Rain’ and ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ established a reputation as the hottest cult writer in American rime. Then after ‘Black Cherry Blues’ won an Edgar Allen Poe Award for the Best Mystery in 1989, ‘A Morning For Flamingos’ and ‘A Stained White Radiance’ consolidated his status as the heir apparent to best-selling crime kings like James Elroy, James Crumley and Elmore Leonard. And with Alex Baldwin playing Robicheaux in the first of four books he has acquired, Burke’s profile is set to soar.

Now 56 years old, Burke grew up on the Texas/Louisiana coast and published three of his sex non-rime novels before the age of 34. He then underwent a forlorn and demoralising 13 years and 93 rejections before (incredibly) ‘The Lost Get-Back Boogie’ was not only published, but nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. At which point Burke promptly turned to crime.

Burke’s Robicheaux stories are about values, about the integrity and loyalty of both criminals and cops, with a superb line in mobsters (Joey Gouza, Didi Gee, Bubba Rocque) and their vicious sidekicks, the likes of Johnny Dartez, Frankie Pliers and Jewel Fluck (‘when you think of Jewel Fluck, think of a hornet someone just poured hot water on’). Burke weaves their violence and how it affects Robicheaux’s simple family life with superb skill and pacing.

Like Robicheaux, Burke’s manner and personal creed seems to vacillate between that of a university lecturer and a redneck vigilante and the love and care with which he describes Robicheaux’s family life and his battle with the bottle allows his books an emotional quality you won’t find in Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen.

In ‘…Electric Mist…’ heavyweight ‘grease ball’, Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni is bankrolling a Hollywood movie set out in the New Iberia swamps and bayou where Robicheaux is investigating the murder of two local prostitutes (the same swamps where Burke grew up).
‘It’s about inherited guilt,’ explains Burke, ‘the need to confront our mistakes, sins against our fellow man.’

‘…Electric Mist…’ also demonstrates another Burke contradiction: the savagery of the violence is set against brilliantly intricate, poetic descriptions of the Louisiana light and rain, New Orleans’ atmosphere (‘I could smell raindrops on the wind, as cool and clean and bright as white alcohol on the tip of the tongue’/’the sky was still dark and low black clouds floated out of the south like cannon smoke.’)

His appreciation of the subtleties of atmosphere is as sharp as his brutal depictions of New Orleans’ street life (the ‘switch-hitters’, ‘door-spielers’, car boosters’ and ‘Murphy artists’. and the usual brew of hitmen, hustlers, prostitutes and junkies) and a natural wise-guy patter worthy of Chandler: ‘The guy’s as likeable as shit on melba toast’, ‘more full of shit than a broken pay toilet.’

And for all his country sentimentality and hospitality, a few minutes’ conversation quickly reminds you of the essential subject and the style of Burke’s work.
‘I believe there are evil people in our midst,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘Evil, immoral and insane people…’

‘Our cities are over-run by psychotic creatures, people on narcotics, people whose charter in their own mind, is to wreak great injury upon other people. Every horrible fantasy out of the mind of the Marquis de Sade is part of American urban life today. The police are no longer there for the purposes of protection. They are there purely After The Fact. Anyone who has been the victim of a violent crime will tell ya that his experience indicated just one conclusion: he was on his own.’

Sentiments such as these could, of course, be right out of his Lieutenant’s mouth, and like Robicheaux, you an never quite be sure whether Burke will react to the perpetrators of these crimes with compassion or violent contempt. Like Robicheaux, Burke is a kind of maverick liberal with his own code – compassionate but vengeful, idealistic but not necessarily law-abiding.

Though Burke believes that welfare is ‘the worst curse we can put on people’, he opposes the death penalty and abhors racism or cruelty. At the same times he finds white liberals’ pacifist reaction to violence laughable. His revulsion to violence is matched only by his belief in the need to carry arms.

‘Violence is disgusting, loathsome, and simian. It degrades and dehumanises and is the surrender of everything that is good in us. But it’s a kind of psychological aberration on the part of liberals in America, to believe that if we disarm ourselves, other people will too; to deliberately make oneself vulnerable.’

He discusses America’s violence with the calm of a historian, a historian who has taken precautions at that.

Burke owns, amongst others, an AR-15 semi-automatic (the civilian equivalent of the M-16) that he thinks ‘should not be sold’ but which, if forced he would have no qualms about using.

‘If a person is not willing to protect himself and protect the lives of his wife and children, I don’t think he deserves the right to have them.’

His message, like Robicheaux’s, is not a happy one:
‘People are being abducted, tortured, sodomised, chopped up, kidnapped, caught in their own homes, trussed up, burnt alive… Anyone who believes that dialing 911 is gonna keep them safe from all this is not dealing with reality.’

Not an accusation anyone could ever level at James Lee Burke.