James Lee Burke Essay - Critical Essays


The designation of James Lee Burke as a member of the hard-boiled school of mystery and detective fiction is fully justified. His novels are dark and often cynical, filled with raw and earthy language spoken by characters from the lowest strata of society. Exceptionally adept at creating atmosphere in his work, Burke writes vividly about the places where the action of his novels occurs. Sometimes these settings mirror the mayhem and chaos being acted out by his characters; more often, however, the idyllic backdrops of the south Louisiana bayou country or the mountains and plains of Montana form a sharp contrast to the violence being perpetrated in them—and to them.

Burke’s characters, good as well as bad, are prone to resort to violence to achieve their ends. His protagonists do not hesitate to mete out their own form of justice when they perceive that the legal system may not deliver the verdict they believe to be right. At the same time, they are not one-dimensional but rather more like the heroes of existential writers Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre than those of Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler. Robicheaux and the cast of characters in the novels in which he is featured are reminiscent of characters created by southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. There are echoes of southern gothic reminiscent of Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) and Requiem for a Nun (1951) throughout the Robicheaux series. In Burke’s fiction, as in Flannery O’Connor’s most celebrated novel, a truly good man—or woman—is sometimes very hard to find.

Burke’s novels exude a great sense of irony as well. Both his major protagonists are men who emerge from violent pasts. Robicheaux is a Vietnam veteran who witnessed the horrors of war firsthand and suffers from alcoholism all his life. Holland, a former Texas Ranger, lives with the guilt of knowing he accidentally killed his partner during a drug raid. Both want to settle down to family life and escape the dangerous world in which they have been immersed. Robicheaux marries four times and even adopts a young Central American girl in his vain attempt to achieve some measure of normalcy in his life. Both Robicheaux and Holland have deep roots in the places in which they live, and environmental issues become a major theme in a number of the books.

What Burke demonstrates through all of his novels is that, no matter how hard these men try, they can never be at peace; they think too much and care too much about their families, their heritage, and their environment to let evil forces run unchecked. That is the central thematic issue running through the individual stories that make up the canon of one of America’s great voices in mystery and detective fiction.

The Neon Rain

In The Neon Rain, the first of the Dave Robicheaux novels, Burke establishes a complex personal history for his protagonist while taking readers on an exciting and dangerous journey through the New Orleans underworld. Robicheaux’s crusade to identify and apprehend the murderer of a young prostitute leads him into a web of sinister activity that eventually ends with his discovering a plot to smuggle arms to Nicaraguan rebels. His personal life is constantly in danger, and although he is thwarted in his investigation on more than one occasion, he manages to escape death and identify not only the prostitute’s murderer but also the head of the smuggling ring, a retired Army general bent on preventing Nicaragua from falling to the communists as Vietnam had.

Robicheaux receives help in his investigation from his partner, Detective Cletus Purcel, whose moral code is considerably more lax...

(The entire section is 1517 words.)