James Lee Burke Biography

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

James Lee Burke was born on December 5, 1936, in Houston, Texas. His mother was a Texan and his father a native of New Iberia, Louisiana, who worked for the oil and gas industry in the region. Early in his life Burke determined to become a writer. After completing high school, he enrolled at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) but did not graduate. Later he enrolled at the University of Missouri, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a master’s degree the following year.

Burke’s first published works are what could be considered mainstream fiction. Modest success came relatively early. Half of Paradise (1965), a novel he completed when he was only twenty-three, was published to critical acclaim in 1965, and his next work, To the Bright and Shining Sun (1970), received a similar reception when it appeared in 1970. However, his third novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971), did not fare as well; critics panned it, and for fifteen years after it appeared in 1971, Burke did not sell another novel to a major publisher. To support himself, he worked at a variety of jobs, including social worker, oil-lease negotiator, newspaper reporter, and college English instructor. During the 1970’s he fought alcoholism, finally achieving sobriety with the help of a twelve-step program in 1977.

After the publication of his third novel, he continued to write and submit his work for publication but without success. More than a hundred publishers rejected The Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986), the story of a Louisiana convict transplanted to Montana. Finally, Burke revised and shortened the novel before offering it to Louisiana State University Press, which had published a collection of his short stories in 1985. The novel appeared in 1986 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Burke became a mystery writer almost by accident. In 1984, challenged by a friend, he tried his hand at a mystery novel. The result was The Neon Rain , a work set in New Orleans and introducing Detective Dave Robicheaux. Published in 1987, the novel immediately established Burke as a new voice...

(The entire section is 517 words.)