The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Faulkner of The Crime Novel

If you haven't read James Lee Burke but have an interest in mystery & crime fiction, you have one of the more pleasurable experiences in contemporary literature waiting for you.

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.


  1. If he had so many rejections, but his books were made into movies, there's hope for me. Maybe some day, my book can be a movie star!

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Right you are, Morgan. There's hope for all of us. In the meantime, give him a shot.

  3. Upon your recommendation, I had picked up my first James Lee Burke novel and in short order had read them all. He is truly an artist, able to paint a picture of a man, his times, and an incredible palce, with just the power of his words. Reading Burke is an experience not to be missed. And I have to agree - can 111 publishers be wrong? Quite obviously, YES.

  4. Thank you, Lise. Yes, I think that like Raymond Chandler, Burke will be in print long after some of our highly-touted "literary" writers are little more more than footnotes in freshman textbooks.

  5. Will pick up one of his books posthaste. Great writing style. Thanks for the heads up Milton.

  6. I haven't read anything by Burke, but your recommendation and the article is enough to make me want to give it a try. I like authors with a distinct voice. There are too many writers today who seem to be producing books with some gadget they snagged from their kitchen cabinets. Down with cookie-cutter literature-- up with the kind of books that say something to me.

  7. I was and am a huge Burke fan and found the Robicheaux series to be immensely rewarding when I discovered them when he was about 4 books into the series. His literate style was a refreshing diversion from some of the workman like writing I had been following. His descriptions jumped off the page and all the characters were rich and full of depth.

    Black Cherry Blues is a work of art in my opinion. There are moments that almost made my draw drop as I read it.

    Now, as you might suspect, is when I drop the other shoe. After reading my way deep into the series, I started finding Burke's plots to be repetitive. I got frustrated with how he handled the character of Dave, plus how conveniently Clete would show up just in time to save Dave's bacon.

    So, sadly, I must say that I've stopped reading the series at about 8 books into the series. While the prose is delightful, the plots just don't go anywhere new for me.

    Still, if you haven't read Burke, I would strongly encourage you check out the early books in the series.