September 18, 2012

Is James Lee Burke the greatest crime writer alive?

Well I guess I've nailed my colours to the mast with that heading ... I am definitely a fanboy when it comes to James Lee Burke.

His latest book is Creole Belle, and continues the story of his bruised and battered cop hero, Dave Robicheaux and his friend Clete Purcel. In this instalment of their ongoing history, Dave is trying to find a girl who came to him while he was recovering from the wounds received at the end of the previous novel, The Glass Rainbow. He doesn't know at first whether the appearance of the girl was a medically-induced vision or whether she was in fact real. She leaves him an iPod with music already installed, but when others try to play the particular tracks on which she sings, they can't find them. This captures one of Burke's strengths - the ability to create an atmosphere in which reality and sur-reality intermingle. Robicheaux's consciousness is one in which the present and the historic past constantly mingle, so that his actions are always tinged with a recognition of their provenance in the past.

This is also made overt in the character of his colleague, Clete Purcel. In this book, Clete comes face-to-face directly with a consequence of his actions: he discovers a daughter that he was unaware of, produced by a crack whore with whom he had a one-night stand years ago. His daughter is ranged against Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair, who has now graduated from law college (an ongoing story in the series of books) and is writing novels. She and Purcel's daughter become friends and Burke uses this pairing - and the pairing of Robicheaux and Purcel - to explore the nature of father/daughter relationships and, specifically, the impact of parents' actions on their offspring. (As a side note, the development of Alafair Robicheaux as a character is becoming increasingly strange, as of course Burke's own daughter is called Alafair, trained and practised as a lawyer, and is an author of crime novels herself. She even had a character in one of her books call the Louisiana PD and talk to a cop with a French-sounding name ... )

Burke typically structures his books as a series of personality clashes interspersed with outbreaks of neurotic violence. Sometimes - particularly in the past - it was Robicheaux himself who would have a blackout while drunk and inflict physical damage on someone else. These days, with Robicheaux sober, it's more likely to be Purcel who has the blackouts. These periodically fuel the plot development and also draw us further into his character than we've ever been before. In this book he's given almost as much airtime as Robicheaux, which is appropriate because we need to see the impact acquiring a daughter has on his psyche. Burke uses the stylistic form he's developed over time of writing initially from Robicheaux's perspective, in the first person, then transferring us into a third person view of other characters - whether it be Purcel, Alafair or even the bad guys.

The glory of Burke's books is his writing. In the earlier books it was notable that his most florid sections were reserved for descriptions of Louisiana and, later, Montana. These days the books have grown longer and incorporate extended sequences of character description that are always insightful and draw you into the lives of the characters. Take this from the first chapter:
I don’t wish to be too romantic about my experience in the recovery facility there on St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans. While I gazed through my window at the wonderful green streetcar wobbling down the tracks on the neutral ground, the river fog puffing out of the live oak trees, the pink and purple neon on the Katz & Besthoff drugstore as effervescent as tentacles of smoke twirling from marker grenades, I knew with a sinking heart that what I was seeing was an illusion, that in reality the Katz & Besthoff drugstore and the umbrella-covered sno’ball carts along St. Charles and the musical gaiety of the city had slipped into history long ago, and somewhere out on the edge of my vision, the onset of permanent winter waited for me.
Note how Robicheaux uses military analogies even here, in his hospital bed: 'effervescent as tentacles of smoke twirling from marker grenades' - the fact that Robicheaux uses such an analogy isn't an accident. His mind was formed early on by his experience in Vietnam, and much of the imagery he uses draws on the sights and the sounds that he took in at that time.

The other tool that Burke has available to him, rather like John Updike, is a specificity of vision that's tied to an almost surreal sensitivity. Here's our first view of Clete Purcel in the book:
His blond hair was cut like a little boy’s. His eyes were bright green, more energetic than they should have been, one step below wired. He set his bag on the floor and began pulling magazines and two city library books and a box of pralines and a carton of orange juice and a Times-Picayune from it. When he bent over, his coat swung open, exposing a nylon shoulder holster and the blue-black .38 with white handles that it carried. He removed a pint bottle of vodka from the bag and unscrewed the cap and poured at least three inches into the carton of orange juice.
Look at the precision in the language: 'magazines and two city library books and a box of pralines and a carton of orange juice and a Times-Picayune' - not just two books and a box of chocolates. Likewise the blue-black barrel of the gun with white handles. This precision anchors the violent and extraordinary events in a physical world. Only Annie Proulx comes close to Burke in describing physical artifacts and their 'presence'.

And let's not forget the dialogue. Burke's strength in dialogue is that his characters follow their own lines of thought. He structures conversations so that there is always conflict and drama inherent in what's being said - even when Robicheaux is talking to his daughter or his wife, there is conflict. Individuals don't always answer the questions that they're asked; or characters ask rhetorical questions designed to insult the other person or put them on the spot. Here's an example where Purcel has been confronted in his office by two bad guys:
"Yeah, I know all about it. With respect, this business about a marker is bogus,” Clete said. “I think Frankie took you over the hurdles. I hope you didn’t get burned too bad.”
“If it’s bogus, why is your name signed on it?” Bix asked.
“Because I used to play bourrĂ© with the Figorelli brothers. I lost some money in a pot, but I covered it the following week. How that marker ended up in Didi Gee’s safe, I don’t know.”
“Maybe because you were stoned out of your head.”
“That’s a possibility. But I don’t know and I don’t remember and I don’t care.”
“Purcel, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I don’t care’ don’t flush.”
“It’d better, because that’s as good as it’s going to get. What’s Waylon doing here?” Clete said.
“He works for me. Why do you ask?”
“He killed a four-year-old child, is why,” Clete replied.
“That was during a robbery. Waylon was the victim, not the guy doing the robbery,” Bix said.
“He backed up over a kid and made the parents testify that a carjacker did it,” Clete said.
“That’s news to me,” Bix said, looking at his friend. “What’s this stuff about intimidating the parents, Waylon?
The conflict and the ebb and flow between being on the attack one moment and the defence the next mean that the characters have real vibrancy. They're not polite. They don't ask questions and listen carefully and quietly to the answers. They use dialogue to attack and to claim moral ascendancy over others. They rarely use it to gather information, as in a standard crime novel.

At the heart of the book there is a crime - in fact, several crimes. As is often the way with Burke, large landowners and rich people are environmentally suspect and are shown to be local stalwarts with feet of clay. Those lower down the food-chain, even criminals, are often victims of their upbringing and culture. Robicheaux says plainly that for him, evil does exist, and finds its way into the hearts of those who exploit others for gain - and here Burke continues his recent expansion by including politicians and financial players into the equation. And as always he incorporates a moral dimension into the viewpoints of his characters. For Burke, a student of history, actions have consequences that define how we'll be remembered. Large organisations - like BP in this book, the unnamed but ever-present company whose oil-spill is ruining the coast - are implicitly faceless and almost by definition without a morality that a real person would recognise. It seems that for Burke the measure of success of any action is not whether it worked or not, but whether it was a moral thing to do. Was it right, or was it wrong? This is the basis underpinning both Robicheaux's and Purcel's actions throughout the book, and for which they commend each other. And it's why they stick together, after all.

Creole Belle moves, as do all the best crime novels, between an exploration and an appreciation of the world of those who have little and the world of those who have much. His grasp of drama, of style, of characterisation and the physical world mean that his books swallow you whole so that you become immersed and almost drown in the Louisiana heat. The last hundred or so pages are an extended physical conflict between Robicheaux and his team on one hand, and the team of his opponents on the other. The intensity of the action, matched by the precision and intensity of the language used to describe it, renders you wrung out and exhausted by the end. But aware of the fact that you've read another extraordinary work by a modern master who need bow his head to no living writer, in any genre or literary school.


  1. As I had read most of Michael Connelly's books I asked the bookstore for advice regarding a similiar author. Creole Belle was recommended and purchased. I did not like this book at all. I do not like extended descriptions of scenery or characters - I have a tendency to skip them and proceed to the next dialogue. I prefer a plot that unfolds with a definitive climax other than movie style violence with the good guys triumphing it in the end. None of the actions of the main characters or villians made sense and it was difficult to determine why some of them where in the book at all. Did we really need to know that a husband of one very minor charater committed suicide with a shotgun?

    1. Ah well, folks' tastes differ, I guess. If you liked Michael Connelly you should perhaps try the Prey books by John Sandford, which feature a cop and are fast-paced and funny. Also, Robert Crais' books feature private eye Elvis Cole and move along at a real lick. A third suggestion might be Joseph Wambaugh's books with 'Hollywood' in the title; these are funny but also feature a range of different cops operating in LA. Good luck with whatever you find.