James Lee Burke Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Contains an analysis of Burke’s Crusader’s Cross and some biographical information.

Bogue, Barbara. James Lee Burke and the Soul of Dave Robicheaux: A Critical Study of the Crime Fiction Series. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Provides a sketch of autobiographical elements in the Robicheaux novels; addresses topics such as the role of women, the search for the father, alcoholism, the impact of war and its stresses, the justice system, and the presence of the supernatural in the novels.

Coale, Samuel. The Mystery of Mysteries: Cultural Differences and Designs. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000. A chapter on Burke’s fiction outlines principal themes and characterization in the Robicheaux novels and links Burke with other southern writers. Also includes an interview with Burke.

Pepper, Andrew. The Contemporary American Crime Novel: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Discusses Burke’s novels as examples of the race, gender, and class conflicts that plague American society; extensive character analysis of Burke’s detective Dave Robicheaux.

Schwartz, Richard B. Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Discusses Burke’s success as a regional novelist and as a master of creating setting and atmosphere; comments on his concerns for issues of family and heritage.