Jan 09

Crime Writers: James Lee Burke

The Brown Wedge2 comments • 292 views

(Introductory notes: my series Comics: A Beginner’s Guide seemed to go over quite well, as far as I can tell. It occurred to me that there were two other areas where I have sometimes been asked for guidance and recommendations – the other is SF writing, coming soon. My tastes are very much for tough American crime, and my interest is that of someone who mostly reads literary fiction, so I’m looking for the same sort of interest and stimulation and entertainment I get there, rather than clever mysteries – though some of the writers I’ll mention do provide that.)

If I were looking to recommend one contemporary crime writer to someone who was only interested in mainstream literary values, I’d go for James Lee Burke. His descriptive prose is of the highest order – especially on the swamplands around New Orleans, the plants and water and animals and weather. He leans rather towards the pathetic fallacy at times, but that’s fine with me. He’s also one of the most serious crime writers ever in thematic terms: lots of unflinching and honest examination of good and evil, race, sex, money, power, politics, crime, law and so on. His sense of evil is particularly powerful, virtually Biblical in conception at times – he reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy than any other writer. Indeed, McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men has much in common with Burke’s novels, not least for the scariness of the central villain.

You don’t get great whodunnits and clever mysteries with Burke – the stories are much more about how the good guys are going to stop the bad ones, rather than who did what, and anyway a lot of the movers behind the killings or whatever get away with it by virtue of wealth and political connections. I suspect this means that there are swathes of genre fans who find him uninteresting, but for a more general reader, I think he is the most powerful novelist ever to specialise in crime.

Recommended: any of his Dave Robicheaux novels, set in and around New Orleans – and there is some gain in reading them in order, as the character and his relationships do go through long-term changes, though this doesn’t mean they can’t stand up well in isolation. His other books are as good, but it’s the bayou descriptions that elevate these, for me.


  1. 1
    Pete on 19 Jan 2009 #

    As you say there is something very bittersweet about a lot of the Robichaux books (the only Burke’s I’ve read I think) which generally have a strike rate of 1 in four the villains actually going down for the crime! Though I believe he cannot resist a ‘gator delivering justice in one.

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 19 Jan 2009 #

    Yes, quite a few bad people get very unpleasant deaths in them, though so do some good people.

    His others are as well written, with comparably strong characters. His sense of place remains, but I do kind of get the feeling his heart is in the bayou country – or maybe that is a more intense environment than most, which suits him better. His short stories are terrific too, by the way.

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page