Within a decade after publishing his first mystery novel, James Lee Burke established his reputation as one of America’s premier practitioners of the genre. What sets him apart from others writing in a form that frequently emphasizes complex plotting at the expense of characterization and thematic development is his ability to incorporate elements of serious, mainstream fiction into his work. Burke explores important social, moral, and even philosophical themes while still incorporating the requisite elements of suspense and action expected in the kind of hard-boiled detective fiction that is his trademark.
Perhaps because Burke began his career writing other forms of fiction, he pays less attention to the kind of careful plotting found in the work of other mystery writers, and his heroes are thoughtful, introspective, and literate men. Through them Burke explores questions about human relationships—love, family, estrangement, alienation, and social responsibility—and about environmental issues such as the despoiling of the land by exploitative businesses. He also uses his novels to examine the role of corrupt, lax, or simply inefficient governmental officials in promoting or allowing the kinds of evil that pose real dangers to civil society.