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 you see it up close and when it’s pervasive in your community, it is like seeing that which you would associate with a war — the murder of the innocent — and you can’t forget it. Any good artist will find that injustice is a reality he must confront, otherwise you will become a propagandist. People who write stories about the antebellum south — happy people on plantations, Gone with the Wind — are aiding and abetting a horrific crime. That’s an injustice towards the dead.
DM: The dead play a very important role in your stories, especially in your latest books: Tin Roof Blowdown, The Glass Rainbow, Feast Day of Fools, and your newest, Creole Belle. Where does this mysticism come from? Would you call Dave Robicheaux a mystic?
JLB: Well, he certainly has a mystical view of the world, but an artist has to be ultimately true to the rules of probability. There has to be a rational explanation, or at least the possibility of a rational explanation for what occurs. As far as I’m concerned, the dead are all around us. I believe there is a world of spirits right beyond the physical world, but I can’t prove that. In the books, the dead exist on two levels. One, we stand on their shoulders. We have a way of denying that. We think of ourselves as being separate from the past. Santayana, the philosopher, famously warns us about ignorance of history condemning us to repeat its worst mistakes. This is an endemic problem in our culture. It is because we are a revolutionary people. Our country was born out of the fire and the sword, and all revolutions are about destroying the past. We never got over that. So, we think of antiquity as something to be avoided. Well, that’s not too smart — in Dave’s view or mine. On another level, Dave is indicating that, maybe, there are supernatural realities around us. It is not simply our obligation to give credit to the dead; it’s to accept the fact that, perhaps, all time happens simultaneously. That’s my belief. I don’t believe that time is linear or sequential. I believe all events happen, perhaps, simultaneously in the mind of the Creator. Maybe that is why people see things. There is a castle in England where people swear they’ve seen Roman soldiers. Talk about a mind warp (laughs). I’ve always hoped that I’d wake up one morning and see a brigade of Confederate Soldiers on my lawn (laughs).
DM: Something like that happens to Robicheaux in your book, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead.
JLB: In that novel, Dave is traumatized by hallucinogens that are put in his drink and he wonders if he’s gone mad, but at a certain point, he begins to accept the fact that he did cross over. He achieves a large measure of peace when he realizes that he doesn’t have to prove it. He knows what he saw, and it has meaning for him. I don’t go around looking for supernatural occurrences or miracles, although I believe I’ve seen miracles — but I’ve had one experience in my life that I don’t argue with. Only one. My daughter and I both experienced it, and we know the dead people involved and we know what happened. Now, I don’t try to argue with people about it. I don’t even tell people about it. The people who go through near death experiences all share the same trait — a tranquility that allows them to mention their experience, but not try to convince anyone of it. They have a detachment about it. If you ask them what happened, they might tell you or they might not. They don’t really care. They aren’t interested in the argument. They feel as if they have millions of gold bricks in a vault and the rest of us have pennies in our pockets. It’s like I’ve said before, if you drive a Rolls Royce don’t argue with someone in a rusted out Plymouth. That’s Dave’s attitude.
DM: That’s a great way of putting it. For a moment, I’d like to return to our earlier topic of crime writing, sociology, and injustice. In The Glass Rainbow, Robicheaux speaks about how both criminals and police officers are attracted to the same “noir world.” How do you and how does Dave, in that scene, define “noir”? Is it similar to the traditional understanding or do you have your own sense of the term?
JLB: I’m using the word noir, in that instance, as a synonym for Darwinian. They are attracted to a Darwinian world in which all the parameters that we convince ourselves we obey and to which we conform have no existence at all. It’s like something that William Faulkner once said, and Dave quotes this in Creole Belle, he was asked once about Christianity and he said, “I think it is a fine idea. Maybe we should try it.” That’s it.
DM: That reminds me of a Jim Harrison line. He writes that “culture is the application of layers of paint over human nature.”
JLB: That’s a great line.
DM: Now, Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic. In addition to that, and even aside from it, your books are always trying to delineate the dangers of vice — individually and socially — narcotics, gambling, especially the commercial casino industry, prostitution. Why is it so important for you to keep referring back to these vices that cause iniquity and self-destruction?
JLB: Dave addresses alcohol in his own life through AA, but he doesn’t proselytize about it. The problem is his. He’ll indicate the damage it’s done to him, but these are things he did to himself, and I’ll just leave it at that without getting to the larger issues of the causes of the disease or its origins. The larger problem — the one the books address — is the inculcation of a vice by the State. That’s the more dangerous problem — when, because of the forces in government, the vice becomes endemic and institutional. Look at gambling. When casinos were first legalized, they were run by the same people who ran the numbers rackets. That may not be true today, but it’s still a scam. It’s one of those situations where it is not a level playing field. The best example of the deleterious side of organized crime becoming legitimized and corrupting an entire political process is the story of Jack Abramoff. That story has its origins where? Louisiana. You see, here’s the history of Louisiana. Louisiana, as Dave says, is really like a Caribbean island that floated upward and became affixed to the Southern rim of the United States. Actually, however, it replicated, and it is emblematic of America’s entire history. Everything that happens there, and for which it became infamous — political corruption, organized crime — happened in most areas of the United States. It happened in Chicago, many other places, and all the same players were there. For example, Huey Long, as Governor of Louisiana, gave the state away to the mob. This was understood, and Louisiana became a giant brothel. I use this word loosely. In Louisiana, and many other States, the Casinos are open 24 hours a day or nearly 24 hours a day, and they sell liquor at all hours, and they just, in my opinion, absolutely destroy the lives of people who are uneducated, people who are poor, and people who are vulnerable to certain forms of manipulation. They take their Welfare checks, their social security, their rent money, because they cannot win, and anyone who knows anything about organized gambling knows that if you stay there long enough, you will lose. The books aren’t meant to be a tirade against organized gambling and certain public policies, but it is in the background, because it is just a fact of life. I still believe, however, that individuals have a right to mess themselves up. I’m not a Puritan and neither is Dave, but when the government aids and abets the self-destruction, and profits from it, that’s a different matter. I would have to ask people, “How would you like a casino in your community, and have guys who’ve been gambling and drinking liquor all night stumbling out the door at eight in the morning, when you have to drive your kids to school?”
DM: Right, right. The frightening element is that many average Americans support the installation of commercial casinos in their communities, because they’ve fallen for the swindle that it will stimulate the local economy, which it almost never does.
JLB: You’ve got it exactly. They make two appeals that are very convincing, but deceptive. One — it will help local industry, when it is the opposite. It hurts the small bar owner who has to close at 2 am and can’t comp free drinks, and the small restaurant owner who can’t compete. Two — they attach it to education. They promise that a small proviso of the profits will go to the local schools and the local teachers. That one works. So, the people who should be against the casino — people concerned about the community, family people, etc. — end up being for it. They are very slick.
DM: How does your own sense of morality negotiate structural injustice and personal acts of evil? I ask because, in all of your books, there is a great resistance to relativizing evil, but at the same time, all of these structural impediments and injustices are not only in the background, but in the foreground. How do you work that out?
JLB: That’s a good question, and Dave often addresses that. There are people in our midst who are cretins — people who appear to be morally insane. These are people like mass shooters, serial killers, serial rapists — no decent person can attempt to imagine what goes on in their minds, and they ruin lives. But, there’s another group of people who do all kinds of harm, and they do it within the system, and they not only have legal and moral cover, but they are lauded for it. Like Dave says, he’s never turned the key on a slum lord or a guy on a zoning commission who is on the pad or on politicians who lie to lead us into wars that kill or maim hundreds of thousands of people. We rarely refer to these men as criminals, but the evil they perpetuate is far more harmful in the world.
DM: Yes — because the impact is felt much further, and the effects multiply across generations. There is another side to this, though. I’ve often told people that your conclusion to Tin Roof Blowdown is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read, and it centers on the idea of redemption. Is redemption possible for everyone?
JLB: I think so. Now, there are some people who don’t want it. Sociopaths don’t have that inclination. There are people who try to erase God’s fingerprint from their souls. These are people who at some point decide to go across a line, and they don’t describe it. They take their secrets to the grave. Ted Bundy is a good example. He was terrified of dying, but he never explained why he did the things he did. He told a minister he was addicted to pornography, and this minister, who I’m sure was well-intentioned, really got what he wanted to hear. Bundy went to his death, though, refusing to tell the loved ones of his victims where he hid their bodies. He would not allow them to give a proper burial. Bundy had nothing to gain by this. Why?
DM: Cruelty knows no limits. For others, however, you believe redemption is possible? In Tin Roof Blowdown, one of the villains participated in gang rapes and he robbed people, but he reached a point of remorse and repentance.
JLB: He does. It is a very tattered kind of redemption he comes to, but he does, and it is because he is genuinely contrite and he tries to set things right.
DM: I’d like to change focus to your writing for a moment. You are a master stylist, and I’m not the only one to say that. Your style enables you, it seems, to imbue your stories with a mythical, Biblical quality. Is that something you consciously set out to do or is it a simple matter of having a tool and using it?
JLB: Thank you very much. To answer your question, it’s a little bit of both. The life of an artist ultimately involves a fundamental choice. You choose to take your particular medium, and once you make that choice, you never look back. It’s all you think about. It is an obsession. The writing never stops for me. If I’m not actually doing it, I’m thinking about it. When I taught creative writing, students would sometimes ask me, ”Do you think I have the talent to make it?” I would never answer, because it is the wrong question. Those who have it, know it. You have a kind of arrogance, but you have to be able to see the drama that surrounds a person every day. Drama is all around us. It does not have to come from a grand panorama. Drama is sitting on a bus looking at the people around you. That’s where all good dialogue comes from. I had an experience taking a bus downtown New Orleans, and two black women were sitting behind me, and one said, “It sure did get chilly.” The other one said, “Yeah, but in the morning tomorrow the sun is gonna shine. It’s gonna shine all day long, and when it goes down at night, you’re going to be feeling fine.” I thought to myself, “This is right out of a sonnet.” Why? Two things — people of color often speak in iambic meter — every other syllable is accented. It’s like that W.C. Handy song — “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” It is upbeat and downbeat. The other great aspect of black speech is its tactile quality. Everything is physical. They use images rather than abstractions. So, that taught me everything about dialogue. One of my favorite lines of dialogue comes from Lazy Lester — the blues singer. These were his words to live by — “Don’t ever write your name on the jailhouse wall” (laughs).
DM: It is fascinating that the tactile qualities of black dialogue influenced your writing, and much of that comes from the black church. I’ve often taught my students that black preaching was the first, original American art form, and that it has influenced everything from rhetoric to music. We could, of course, connect that with Christianity and Biblical language. Christianity seems very important in your novels — Feast Day of Fools, especially — but it is also important to Dave Robicheaux. How much of it is personal for you? Also, in your books, there seems to be a war within Christianity. Is that that happening in America?
JLB: My feelings are the same as Dave Robicheaux. I try to be a Christian. It’s not always easy. There’s people I’d like to throw chairs at (laughs), but more seriously, I believe in it. The character in Creole Belle that we meet — the country and blues singer Dixie Lee Pugh — tells Dave that “you have to find the story you like and stick with it.” That means that you find a vision of the world — a metaphysical vision of creation — and you stick with it. It’s like the medieval knight-errant — he makes his pledge and he sticks with it. That may be simple, but I believe it. Secondly, we live in a time that is dangerous, because the most fanatical elements in both the Western and Eastern worlds have come to their ascendancies. In the Muslim world, it is the fanatical mindset that gave us 9/11. In the Western world, Christian fundamentalists use different terms to define themselves, but they possess all the same characteristics as their counterparts — the bigots in the Middle East. They have the same mindset. It’s nativist. It’s racist. It’s xenophobic. They have a rigidity of mind that allows them to armor plate the neurosis that drives them, and they pose as Christians, but they have a marshal light in their eyes. They use the banner of God and the flag of their nation as their umbrella to advance their personal agenda, which is violent. We saw all of this during the Republican debates not too long ago when candidates said they would be willing to see people die in emergency rooms…
DM: Congressman Ron Paul received roaring applause when he said that a young man who elects not to purchase insurance should die if he becomes sick.
JLB: Roaring applause. I wonder what Jesus would think of that.
DM: There’s a line in Tin Roof Blowdown in which Robicheaux says that we claim to be a Christian people, but the truth is otherwise. There’s evidence of that every day.
JLB: Americans say they love Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi, but when push comes to shove, they want Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Machiavelli said in The Prince that people may indicate they want a man of peace to govern them, but in reality, they never want virtue to be a restraint, and he says that the people want a leader who wears “a velvet glove over an iron fist.”
DM: Every war is sold in the name of peace. I don’t think there’s been an exception to that.
JLB: Yes, and the issue is almost always money, or territory, or strategic interest, and those who are the most enthusiastic about bloodshed are, as Dave says, those who revise the inadequacies of their earlier lives by precipitating suffering in the lives of others. They live vicariously through the people whose lives they destroy.
DM: Yes, and it is easy to be a warmonger from behind a computer screen in an air conditioned office, or from behind a podium while surrounded by armed guards.
JLB: That’s true. Senator George McGovern is a friend of mine, and when he ran for President he was denigrated as a weak pacifist. He flew 35 missions in World War II. He told me that once when he was speaking, a heckler shouted out, “Are you a pacifist?” And he answered, “Yes, and I became one when I watched my co-pilot bleed to death over Austria.” He lost 49 states to 1 to Richard Nixon. What does that tell you? Nixon, Bush, and others are people who seem to have enjoyed what they were doing. You could see it about them. There was a malevolent light in their eyes and an imperious gaze as they took their country to war.
DM: Speaking of American history, in Creole Belle, Robicheaux seems to be afflicted with a sense of mourning for an America he enjoyed in his youth — not with an overly romantic sense of nostalgia that ignores injustice, but with some fondness and appreciation — and now he sees that it has vanished. What is this America?
JLB: Well, he remembers the Edenic world into which he was born. Louisiana was once like a poem, when industrialization had not yet left such a heavy mark. He always reminds himself of the inequities at work in his youth — racism, segregation, and a prison system that was just brutal. What Dave feels is lost, however, is an America of manners and civility. That’s not being overly romantic about the past, because if someone were to ask me, “Would you like to go back and live the way people lived 50 years ago?” I’d say, “No, of course not.” My wife is Asian. We’ve been married for 50 years, and at that time, we could not get married. That’s how things were. There was so much prejudice and hatred. I wouldn’t want to go back to that. At the same time, however, we live in an era in which we confuse honesty and candor with an in-your-face, confrontational, and insulting attitude toward our fellow human beings. It’s not a virtue to insult people. I think we’ve suffered a big loss. As much laudatory progress as we’ve made with race and ethnicity, we’ve also seen ecological destruction, an increasingly hostile and aggressive culture, and the ruination of the inner cities.
DM: Are you working on anything new?
JLB: Yes, I have a fall deadline for a new novel, and it is very different. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before, and rather than describe it now, I’ll leave it at that and wait until I’m finished writing.