JAMES LEE BURKE — the rare winner of two Edgar awards — belongs in the equally rare category of crime writers who consistently elevate their genre to the level of literature. He is best known for his series of New Orleans and New Iberia novels about homicide detective Dave Robicheaux. Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic who combines steely toughness, leftist politics, and an unsystematized set of mystical beliefs — to uphold justice, protect the living, and honor the dead — all while investigating crimes that take him from seedy strip clubs and slums to the corridors of corporate power and municipal governance. Burke chronicles the heroic struggles of Robicheaux and, in another series, Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland, in high style. Indeed, he is one of the master stylists of his generation. His words soar off the page with the transcendent velocity and intensity of a John Coltrane saxophone solo. This style lends his stories of murder, corruption, and the everlasting conflict between good and evil a truly mythic quality.
I spoke with James Lee Burke on the phone shortly after the release of his new book, Creole Belle. The latest in the Dave Robicheaux series is a funereal tribute to the vanishing Edenic landscape of America. The ecological destruction of the B.P. oil spill provides the background to a story of violence on the bayou. Through painful confrontations with the blade of bad news, Robicheaux performs exploratory surgery on his soul — searching for answers to criminal mysteries in the material world, but also to the deepest mysteries of the spirit. Throughout Creole Belle, Robicheaux is forced to reckon with mortality, the existence of the soul, the problem of evil, and the promise of justice.
David Masciotra: You once made the statement that the good crime novel is a sociological novel. Much of contemporary American literature tells stories that are economically and ethnically insulated. Could you elaborate on your connection between crime novels and sociology? Is the crime novel the last sociological novel in American literature?
James Lee Burke: I use the term sociological novel only because it defines what we think of as a past manifestation. We associate the term with the 1930s and the ‘40s, and for some reason we think we don’t have social problems anymore. So, the term crime novel has now replaced the term sociological novel. James T. Farrell, from Chicago, was a major influence on my work with his Studs Lonigan novels. These were crime novels, but they were about the crime of poverty, and the limitations that poverty placed on Studs’ world and choices. That naturalistic view of the world is one that’s been with me ever since.
DM: Is this why you started writing crime novels? Did you want to be able to write compelling stories that touch on socioeconomic and sociopolitical issues?
JLB: It wasn’t so much of a deliberate choice. From the beginning, I wrote about social injustice. I published my first story when I was 19 and finished my first novel when I was 23, and both dealt with men in a Louisiana penal camp. For me, that’s because in the area where I grew up injustice and inequality were very visible. People who grow up in a wealthy suburb and don’t have the experience of regularly witnessing injustice being done to people don’t have the same understanding of it. When...read more