James Lee Burke is one of those writers who has been quietly toiling in the vineyard (or cotton fields, he might say) for decades, producing first-class work that has remained invisible to the bookbuying public and editorial boards until he turned the full butane of his talents on an area of literature that has threatened to atrophy since James Crumley stopped producing, Elmore Leonard hit the cover of Time, and Robert B. Parker got rich rewriting Chandler - the hard-boiled suspense thriller.
With the first of the Dave "Streak" Robicheaux novels, The Neon Rain, the critics had heard a monster approaching. Reviewers groped for superlatives. Among my favorite notices was the St. Petersburg Times: "Horrifying... Nerve wracking ... if Robert Mitchum wrote books, he'd write like this...." Strange, but I know what he means. It would be fun to hear Mitchum on tape reading the alcoholic Cajun cop's first-person narrative. Robicheaux speaks in the reader's ear with a quiet, sad Southern baritone, and while he faithfully renders the dialogue of Cajuns, crooks, and cops in their own voice and cadence with the accuracy of a possessed parrot, his own voice takes flight with an almost compulsive lyricism as he describes French Quarter streets, backwater bayous, and roadside beer halls.
Among the remarkable aspects of reading Burke's "Streak" novels ("Streak" is Robicheaux's nickname, after a bolt of dead white in his black hair) is watching both Burke and Robicheaux walk the walk between beauty and ugliness. This is an extended metaphor for good and evil, or it's a kind of artistic tension — contrast rather than conflict — that serves perfectly in the place of suspenseful violence.
The paperback of Neon Rain came to my attention through a friend who was pointing out the sorry state of Pocket Book's art department. The cover is bad. Seriously bad. I would never have picked the thing up. The blurb tiredly trumpets, "In the city of jazz and desire, he's a cop with a battered code — a heartbeat away from death." Yeah yeah. I took it home anyway and tossed it onto a pile of books I think of as "guilty pleasures." Junk. Stuff to read in the bathtub. In the tub I read, "The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums...." Okay. If this was the male-action pulp the cover promised, I figured I might be in the hands of a writer who was a little too good for this stuff, or taking it too seriously. (That is a kind of fun to itself, reading a novelist who is catching his breath, stretching his nascent talents. A bad good writer, a pretentious hack with a sensible agent — Never mind, it's a perverse taste.) What I was not prepared for was a real "Novel" with unobtrusively realized ambition.
For those who resist mystery novels, as I did for many years on the basis of "Hey, I really don't care whodunit," Burke is a find. The descriptive prose is reason enough to seek out this writer-as-phenomenon. Lyrical, seductive, hypnotic, visceral, even, at times, excessive given the form — close reading of Burke's asides about flora, fauna, or a play of light is always rewarded with an image or sensation that takes us out of ourselves. Long stretches of his work are, in fact, poetry as I understand the concept. The closing sentence in Heaven's Prisoners: "I wait like a denied lover for the blue glow of dawn." Or the paragraph-long stream of consciousness at the close of Black Cherry Blues:
... But sometimes at dusk, when the farmers burn the sugarcane stubble off their fields and cinders and smoke lift in the wind and settle on the bayou, when red leaves float in piles past my dock and the air is cold and bittersweet with the smell of burnt sugar, I think of Indians and water people, of voices that can speak through the rain and tease us into yesterday, and in that moment I scoop Alafair up on my shoulders and we gallop down the road through the oaks like horse and rider toward my house, where Batiste is barbecuing gaspagoo on the gallery and paper jack-o-lanterns are taped to the lighted windows, and the dragons become as stuffed toys, abandoned and ignored, like the shadows of the heart that one fine morning have gone with the season.
Another powerful draw is in the delivery of character. We never tire of observing our fellow monkeys, and Burke takes such care. Even briefly glimpsed walk-ons are given dimension and humanity, but his real achievements in this area are Cletus Purcel, Dave's partner in Neon Rain, who returns two books later; Batiste, Robicheaux's black groundskeeper, friend, and hired hand; and Dixie Lee Pugh from Black Cherry Blues, an old rock and roll star from the '50s who walks and talks more than a little like Jerry Lee Lewis.
Purcel is introduced in the first novel:
Cletus's face looked like it was made from boiled pigskin, except there were stitch scars across the bridge of his nose and through one eyebrow, where he'd been bashed by a pipe when he was a kid in the Irish Channel.
Purcel's function, in two of the novels, is largely to do the dirty work Robicheaux's moral code forbids. This is a kind of subconvention in hard-boiled literature that has its roots as far back as James Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer. An amoral, usually swarthy guide is needed to take the hero through the heart of darkness he must explore. Robert B. Parker is well aware of this in his Spenser novels, where the hero's black sidekick, Hawk, is not as shy as Spenser about blowing someone away in cold blood. The hero will bend the law or sidestep it; Parker's Hawk, Fenimore Cooper's Chingachgook, and James Lee Burke's Cletus Purcel will run roughshod over it in hobnailed boots. This leaves the hero tarnished, bloody, but morally unbowed.
The creation of the good black man Batiste is interesting in an almost Freudian way. He is something of a mother figure to Dave and his adopted daughter Alafair. Illiterate and simple, yet strong and kind, Batiste is an island of decency in the storm of evil that blows through Streak's life.
" 'He like that, him,' Batiste said. 'Your old man like flowers. Flowers and women. Whiskey, too. Hey, Dave, you don't be sad. Your old man wasn't never sad.' "
But Dave Robicheaux is nothing if not sad. Abandoned by his mother and first wife, his father killed in an oil rig accident when he was a child, his second wife brutally murdered by criminals, Robicheaux fights the bottle, bitterness, and his own violent nature with AA spirituality and Catholicism. The enraged and introspective detective is capable of chain whipping a man nearly to death with one hand and (one almost anticipates) administering Last Rites with the other. Through the character of Robicheaux, Burke explores his own fascination with God and mortality, the problem of suffering and evil. Seeking out a priest to hear his confession, Robicheaux asks absolution for " ... inadequacies. My failures. For any grief or injury I've brought an innocent person." The priest tells him, "Sometimes maybe it's a vanity to judge ourselves." A sentiment worthy of Graham Greene.
To make trite comparisons with Raymond Chandler doesn't really work here, though it's been brought up, naturally, on blurbs and in reviews. Since Chandler, Burke may be the best in the area of atmosphere and description, the evocation of moral code and simile ("It was an obscene feeling, as though a man's hand had slipped lewdly inside my shirt and now rested sweatily on my breastbone"), but Burke's triumph is in the transcending of a single narrative voice. Lest anyone think Burke is devoid of humor, a passage toward the end of Black Cherry Blues is remarkable for its rendering of Dixie Lee Pugh's Southern madman charm and cadence of speech, while revealing the character of bad guy Sally Dio.
... Dig this. Sal built an elevator platform for the piano at his club, one of these deals that rises up into the spotlight while the guy's playing. Except after the club closed this 280-pound bouncer got on top of the piano with this topless dancer for some serious rumba boogie, and somehow the machinery got cranked up and the elevator went right up to the ceiling and mashed them both against a beam. It broke the guy's neck, and the broad was trapped up there with him all night. So Sal says it's a real big tragedy, and he holds the funeral on a Sunday afternoon at the club, with the casket covered with flowers out in the middle of the dance floor. But the undertaker messed up the job, and the guy's neck was bent and his head was out of round, like a car tire had run over it, and the dagos were slobbering and wailing all over the place while Sal's singing on the mike in a white suit like he's Tony Bennett. It was so disgusting the waiters went back to the union and threatened to quit. Later Sal says to me, "It was a class send-off, don't you think? Jo-Jo would have liked it." Except I found out he only rented the casket, and he had Jo-Jo planted in a cloth-covered box in a desert cemetery outside of town that lizards wouldn't crawl across.
The new book, A Morning for Flamingos, has, Burke says, landed him with "A nice, fat movie deal." It is another Dave Robicheaux story and promises to be the best of them. I am reading it now. James Lee Burke has arrived. After nearly a decade of being all but out of print except for some mainstream work in the small presses, readers are discovering his genre work and finding it to be serious fiction. If it's not also art, then I don't know what is.