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Tom Chaney: James Lee Burke

Of Writers And Their Books: James Lee Burke. Tom says character for Burke is more like gazing into a pool of water -- first still and clear, then roiling and cloudy. This column first appeared 9 August 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "There Is No God and We Are His Prophets"

By Tom Chaney

James Lee Burke

If you have been paying attention for the last couple of years, you will have observed that I am wary of the categorization of writers and their work. History leads into fiction. Fiction is transformed into poetry. Mystery becomes adventure which becomes romance which becomes science fiction, and so it goes.

Good plot is important because movement is important. But what happens along the way is interesting only because it happens to people we either care for or hate or are intrigued by.

Setting is important. Perhaps we read Robert Penn Warren's World Enough and Time because the names echo place names we know from our neighborhood or from our state's history. But his characters strike that place in our psyche containing our fondest hopes and our deepest fears.

Let the plot be too contrived; let the place become sentimentalized; and we have drifted into local color. Read that kind of novel and be sure to stay away from sweet tea for fear of diabetes.

But it is character which matters.

Some time back I became enamored of the writing of James Lee Burke.

At first I called him a mystery writer with stories set in south Louisiana and Montana. But to pin Burke down by the category 'mystery' just because his hero detective Dave Robicheaux ferrets the identity of a murderer is akin to calling the Bible 'erotica' just because a couple of verses from 'Song of Songs' titillate.

Pegasus Descending, Burke's 2006 novel featuring Robicheaux begins with Robicheaux speaking, "In the early 1980's, when I was still going steady with Jim Beam straight-up and a beer back. . ."

That tells us much about Dave, his occupation, and the addiction which he combats on a daily basis.

That opening scene describes a mob-related bank heist in Florida in which a Vietnam era friend of his, policeman Dallas Klein, is gunned down. Dave was drunk at the time and knows he could have saved his friend and stopped the robbery had he been sober. This scene is replayed over and over in his mind and is another layer in the multi-layered demonology with which he must deal.

Pegasus Descending takes place in the early years of this decade. It is an account of three murders -- three stories and more entwined inextricably -- in south Louisiana. Trish Klein, the daughter of the murdered friend, is involved in cheating casinos in south Louisiana owned by the mob that killed her father for revenge years ago in Florida.

A young girl is either murdered or commits suicide after being the victim of a gang rape at a local fraternity; a derelict is victim of a hit-and-run accident and a brutal beating; and the son of a local mobster is murdered.

The strains of the tale are an intricate mare's nest of threads that run over and around one another in a world where local events are no more clear than the hazy vision of Confederate soldiers shrouded in the mist of the twenty-first century bayou.

And the texture of that bayou is one of the finest elements of Burke's prose. His description thereof is multidimensional in space and time. Race and class hatreds exist whose multigenerational sources are entwined in the very roots of time.

But the finest element of his prose is the complex character of Dave Robicheaux. Booklist got it right when it called him "probably the most fascinating protagonist in contemporary crime fiction." Burke's Robicheaux is not layered like an onion where one layer is peeled back to reveal another. Character for Burke is more like gazing into a pool of water -- first still and clear, then roiling and cloudy. When the turgidity abates and the turbidity fades from time to time complex depths become partially clear.

I have not yet read all the thirty-some books Burke has written since 1965, but I'm working on it. Each is self-contained. Once in a while you may be transported to his other favorite land, Montana. In fact in Swan Peak, published in 2008, Dave Robicheaux and his colleague Clete Purcel head for the Big Sky Country. I'm looking forward to that.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-08-10 06:28:03
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