The Mystery Writer: James Lee Burke on hope, justice, and redemption

James Lee Burke

He writes crime fiction, but his stories are shadowed by the shifting boundaries between the powerful and the powerless.

JAMES LEE BURKE is the reigning iconoclast of literature, and the critics can’t quite figure him out.

He writes mysteries.

But they aren’t really whodunits.

They are battles between good and evil.

He writes crime fiction.

But his stories are shadowed by the shifting boundaries between the powerful and the powerless.

Neither wins.

Both lose.

It’s just that one doesn’t quite suffer as much as the other.

The morals in his novels are dark.

Judgment is certain.

And Burke, as much as anyone in the writing game today, understands the human need for some form of redemption.

He does write mysteries.

But a poet lurks deep within his soul.

And no one writes better.

Black Cherry Blues is my personal favorite of Burke’s Dave Robicheaux mystery novels.

Consider this passage:

Then the sun broke above the crest of the hills, and the entire countryside looked soaked in blood, the arroyos deep in shadow, the cones of dead volcanoes stark and biscuit-colored against the sky. I could smell pinion trees, wet sage, woodsmoke, cattle in the pastures, and creek water that had melted from snow. I could smell the way the country probably was when it was only a dream in the mind of God.

Bring on the big boys.

Bring on the writers of classics.

Bring on the writers who make English teachers swoon.

I dare any of them to try and write as well.

Poet Robert Frost once said a poet must be committed to a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Burke has it.

Burke’s quarrel rages and is sometimes violent.

He lets his reader see the bad side of the streets and watch the miseries of life through the eyes of such characters as detective Dave Robicheaux, a man who grew up upon a tawdry Southern Louisiana landscape that was, he said, morally insane and full of abuse.

That’s why, James Lee Burke says, he writes about injustice. He writes to make the world a better place.

He can’t.

But he tries.

His mission has always been to give voice to the people who have none.

During his days in high school, Burke could not have never imagined himself as a writer, much less a writer of best sellers.

He feared he might never pass English.

Blame Miss Williams.

Day after day, week after week, she gave him a D minus on his essays. Burke recalls, “She used red ink and my work looked like a disemboweled animal. There was so much blood on the page.”

He asked why his grade was so bad.

She looked down at him and said, “Mister Burke, your penmanship is an abomination upon the eyeball, and your spelling makes me sorry for the Phoenicians who invented the alphabet. But you write with such heart that I couldn’t give you an F.”

Burke grinned.

He had a chance.

He went to her office every Saturday and re-wrote his essays.

In the end, Miss Williams gave him a B.

He says, “That teacher changed my life.”

As a writer, his talents were recognized early. Burke published his first short story at the age of nineteen, and a debut novel, a Western titled Half of Paradise, attracted national attention.

The critics all said the same thing.

That boy can write.

But is the novel really a Western?

It’s too good to be a Western.

A second novel, To the Bright and Shining Sun, explored the hard, savage lives of Appalachian miners. The New York Times called it a surging, bitter novel as authentic as moonshine.

Burke’s writing was magic.

The magic suddenly went away.

No.

The magic was still there.

The critics suddenly went away.

James Lee Burke sat down on top of the world and wrote his next novel.

It received a hundred and eleven rejections.

It would be thirteen years before he was published again.

But when James Lee Burke broke through at last, the break was wide and without end, and the critics who printed rejection slips would never become an obstacle for him again.

Burke believes: “A great artist finds his voice and then uses it in ways others do not. It’s the iconoclast who leads us away from ourselves. We address ourselves to what is best in people. I think that’s why George Orwell wrote so well. He believed the human spirit was unconquerable, and as a result, the reader is immediately drawn to the humanity in all of Orwell’s essays.”

Burke has built a career writing about the humanity of mankind.

Its weaknesses.

Its corruption.

Its hope for redemption.

It’s not the humanity of others that worry him. It is his own.

Whodunit: The Adverb Looks Guilty includes everything I suspect about writing. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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