Burke was born in Houston in 1936 and was raised in Houston and southern Louisiana. Between then and now he earned a master's degree in English and journalism and worked variously as a petroleum landman, a social worker, a surveyor, and a college English teacher and survived alcoholism. Along the way he acquired a Chinese-American wife named Pearl and sired four high-achieving children including his daughter Alafair who is both a law professor and a published crime novelist. He and his wife, who have been married forty-eight years, divide their year, living in homes in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.
Two of his crime novels have been made into movies: Heaven's Prisoners (with Alec Baldwin & Mary Start Masterson), and In The Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, which starred Tommy Lee Jones & Mary Steenburgen. Both Baldwin and Jones played Dave Robicheaux, Burke's conflicted, alcoholic Cajun deputy sheriff/protagonist.
And those are the bare bones of the man's life, other than the fact that he holds a record of sorts: his novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected by one hundred and eleven separate and distinct publishers only to be brought out at last by Louisiana State University Press. Six months after its inception, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, thus proving that the American publishing industry is largely run by idiots.
I will not belabor the issue other than to say that in his Robicheaux books, Burke paints a picture of a place (southern Louisiana) and a people unlike anything else ever seen in print. He also has a second series, the Billy Bob Holland books, whose protagonist, Holland, is a retired Texas Ranger-turned lawyer. While they are well worth reading and very entertaining, it is the Robucheaux series that his magnum opus. Burke has attracted a wide readership outside the world of literature and has been the subject of laudatory newspaper pieces by such diverse figures as noted University of South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson, the editor of the John C. Calhoun papers, and political columnist Charlie Reese. Reese's piece can be found here.
Each of the Robicheaux books can be read independently without reference to the earlier volumes for background. However, they are best read in order because great changes occur in the protagonist's life. This snippet from Jolie Blon's Bounce will give you some idea of the man's style:
"I wanted to drive deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp, past the confines of reason, into the past... on the tree-flooded alluvial rim of the world, where the tides and the course of the sun were the only measures of time and all you had to do was release yourself from the prison of restraint, just snip loose the stitches that sewed your skin to the hairshirt of normalcy."A complete list of Burke's works can be found at his website here.
A couple of years after 9/11, the ancient and venerable magazine The Nation asked several American writers for articles on their home states. Burke's contribution can be found here, and it will give you some idea of the magic this man can do with words.
If you like crime novels or just love good strong Southern fiction, I urge you to give him a try.