Way back (when the earth’s crust was cooling, as I tell my kids), I studied literature in college. As you might imagine, it covered everything from old, old stuff (Chaucer, Homer) to Shakespeare (duh) to women’s lit (O’Connor, Lee, Brontë, Austen) to American lit (Faulkner, Hemingway) and lots of other people I can’t remember right now.
Anyway, for some dumb reason, I thought that is where it ended. At least in my lifetime. Who could top all those guys and gals, right?
And then I discovered James Lee Burke.
What’s funny about this is that I discovered his daughter first. Alafair Burke is a crime novelist who has written plenty of her own excellent books, most recently The Ex, The Wife, and, coming out April 16th (mark your calendar!), the Better Sister. She has also co-written five (if I count correctly) books with the “Queen of Suspense,” Mary Higgins Clark. Not shabby. She’s an attorney, a professor, a gifted speaker, a wife, and a mother to two very personable doggies.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Alafair, something freely I admit I’ve bragged to my family about.
To which the younger of my two older brothers, in typical
meanie brotherly fashion said, “Who cares about her! Have you met her father?”
My brother is one of the smarter people I know and he reads everything he gets his hands on. He reads quickly and he reads constantly. Certain things, however, he savors. Two of them are Garden and Gun magazine and anything by James Lee Burke.
With James Lee Burke, he takes his time. Now I know why.
The first James Lee Burke novel I read was Robicheaux. That was just one book ago. He has written thirty-eight books, plus two volumes of short stories. I’m saying I have a lot of catching up to do.
James Lee Burke’s novels are literature. They are so beautifully written, you marvel at how someone can bring scenes to crystal clarity the way he does. Just wow.
Dave Robicheaux is a character about whom JLB has now written twenty-three books. Dave is a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia, Louisiana, where he has a mess of a sidekick named Clete and an adopted daughter named Alafair (aw, lookathere) and a pet raccoon. He struggles with Vietnam War flashbacks, visions of Confederate soldiers, and alcoholism.
I’m not sure how far back it goes, but in The New Iberia Blues and in Robicheaux, Hollywood has taken a liking to New Iberia. Swanky actors are hanging around and, in Dave’s opinion, some of them are paying too much attention to Alafair. Alafair works with them as a screenwriter. Coincidently, in this one, Alafair is also writing something called “The Wife” in her downtime. (see above if you’ve already forgotten)(Nice plug, daddy!)
The New Iberia Blues begins with a ghastly murder of a young lady who is set afloat in the water on a wooden cross. From the way she was posed, Dave and his new sidekick, Bailey Ribbons, identify a relationship to one of the tarot cards. A series of gruesome, brutal murders commences, likewise posed to resemble different tarot cards. Dave and Bailey and Clete chase leads with a large pool of suspects, including two escaped murderers and three Hollywood types.
This isn’t your normal whodunnit. The expertly woven plot is rocked and painted and stroked to stunning conclusion by James Lee Burke’s beautiful prose.
My youngest daughter goes to college in the fall. Maybe she will not study James Lee Burke in her English courses, but I bet her children will. Lucky them.