Monday, September 27, 2010

James Lee Burke


Never read one. Which is your favorite?

31 comments:

Deb said...

I know I'll probably be in the minority here, but I've said before that, even though I live in Louisiana, I've never found Burke very enthralling. I think his writing style is purple and overblown. I'd say read IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD, which is pretty representative of his work. If you like it, there are plenty of others to choose from. If you don't, well, you gave it a shot.

Joe Barone said...

I think the first one where Dave rescued Alafair (sp?) from the plane. I can still visualize the details of that scene and it has been no-telling-how-many years since I read it.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Burke's Robicheaux develops over time. So if you want to "meet" him from the beginning, I'd suggest Black Cherry Blues or A Morning for Flamingos. You can catch up on his backstory that way.

sandra seamans said...

My first Burke was In the Electric Mist then I read everything else in the Robicheaux series. Sadly he lost me with "The Tin Roof Blowdown", I didn't care for that one at all. His other series and standalones I tried but really didn't care for them. They seemed more focused on descriptions than the characters for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm like Deb - he's not for me.

I read one, The Neon Rain, and have no desire to try another.

Jeff M.

Naomi Johnson said...

I think THE TIN-ROOF BLOWDOWN is a masterpiece. I started with JOLE BLON'S BOUNCE, and I've never regretted starting there.

Charles Gramlich said...

Probably Black Cherry Blues, though I love all of his work I've read so far.

Tom said...

I found DIXIE CITY JAM to be very entertaining. (Anything with the hunt for lost German u-boats in the Gulf of Mexico has to be entertaining.)

Tom Roberts
Black Dog Books

pattinase (abbott) said...

Looks like he's not for every taste. Is it a regional thing? A style thing?

Randy Johnson said...

Deb is not alone, Patti. I've tried several, but never finished one. Don't even bother anymore. His style is just not for me.

Some good writers I just don't get. Tom Clancy is another one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess there is no writer universally admired but this breaks down the middle.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right, Patti. In this case it is a style thing. (On other popular authors that I don't read it is often because I just do not like their series character at all, or at least enough to keep reading about him/her. See P. Cornwell, for instance.)

Jeff M.

George said...

I'm with Deb: Burke's work is overrated. I liked his early novel, THE NEON RAIN, but Burke's novels in the last decade have been bloated, dull affairs.

Dana King said...

Burke writes crime fiction that reads like literature, which I think throws some people off. Where most writers move the pace along during an action sequence, Burke's unfold as though in slow motion. I've never seen anyone else try to do it that way, and, for me, he always succeeds.

I like the Robicheaux books better than the Billy Bob Holland stories; his style of description seems better suited to Louisiana than to Montana. That being said, I've never read a Robicheaux story I didn't like. (I probably liked TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN least, primarily because he preached a little there, though it's still a great story.)

My personal favorites: INTO THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD (unusual, as I rarely like stories with a supernatural angle. This is also an excellent movie, starring Tommy Lee Jones as Robicheaux.), PEGASUS DESCENDING, and JOLIE BLON'S BOUNCE.

@ Joe, I think HEAVEN'S PRISONERS is the book where they find Alafair, though I'm not 1005 sure on that.

Chad said...

I like James Lee Burke quite a bit. I can see how he isn’t for everyone. He doesn’t write lean, rapid fire-paced narratives. And I don’t think you read him for his plotting, you know the ingeniuity of the crime or capper of whatever. I wouldn’t refer to his prose as purple, it doesn’t quite, for me anyway, hit the massive overblown mark that I think of as being the purple indicator. I’ve always been really impressed with his prose, even if it does feel a little archaic, but I think it’s vivid and poetic without being stilted and can be especially refreshing after reading the clipped style that seems to dominate crime fiction. I’ve always liked his characters, their backgrounds, their thoughts, the ghosts that haunt them. The setting in a Burke book is an equally important character and looms large across the page. I think you read a Burke book for that, for the people, more than the plot. When he's on top of his game and sometimes he can be a little dull, he's great. He captures those little moments of humanity really well. I don't think you see that too often in crime fiction.

He’s got several series and many stand-alone novels. Obviously, I’ve enjoyed some books within each series more than others, but they’re all good. Just pick a place and start; I'm envious.

However, skip all the movie versions though. None of them translate well to the screen.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is truly intriguing in that people come down so strongly on one side or the other.

Evan Lewis said...

Read the first six and they were all amazing.

Richard R. said...

I'm going to have a yes-and-no answer about Burke, I liked the early MORNING FOR FLAMINGOS and BLACK CHERRY BLUES, didn't care much for ELECTRIC MIST, and stopped reading him. But I picked up TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN - I wanted to see what he would do with Hurricane Katrina - and liked it a lot. Now I have picked up a couple of books previous to that, but not gotten to them yet. BLOWDOWN showed me what a fine wordsmith he has become, or so I think. I know many disagree, that's fine, fiction affects each of us differently.

Bill Crider said...

I've read 'em all. I'd say start with the first one. Or even go back to one of the pre-Robicheaux books. I'd recommend LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD.

pattinase (abbott) said...

But if I were to only read one...

Frank Loose said...

Only read one? For an early one, I'd go with the 1990 Edgar award winner, BLACK CHERRY BLUES. It's the first JLB that I read and I remember it being unlike any other crime book I'd read at the time. I felt it was fresh and written with a style several notches above what other folks were producing. While it has elements that kinda became "signature" pieces to the series, I think a later book like STAINED WHITE RADIANCE would better reflect what the series became.

I quit reading him several years ago because I felt like the books were all pretty much the same. So, from that perspective, I don't know that it really matters which book you read. You will find the strengths of Burke's writing evident in any of them.

BTW, did you know JLB and Andre Dubus are cousins? Tis true.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

Surprised so many people dislike Burke. He's one of my favorite writers. I'd start with Black Cherry Blows altho Tin Roof Blowdown may be his best.

Randy-Some good writers you don't get.n Since when is Tom Clancy a good writer? He's terrible. Not anywhere in the same league as Burke.

pattinase (abbott) said...

No I had no idea. But I loved Dubus. He knew how to write short stories better than almost anyone.

Frank Loose said...

Yep, without a doubt one of the best.

Ron Scheer said...

Can't deal with him. Too graphically violent. ELECTRIC MIST the movie, is not bad, but so cynical.

Enchanted Oak said...

I think I picked up Burke with Heaven's Prisoners, and his writing captured me. You are absolutely right to be considering reading James Lee Burke. I see some don't connect with him, but don't let that stop you from forming your own opinion. Robicheaux is a strong personality. It's possible one either likes him or doesn't like him. Also, Burke's style is intense, and some undoubtedly don't care for that. My reading friends love Burke's work.
I don't read Burke's mysteries for the action. I read them for the sheer delight of the narration: sensual, evocative, the gorgeous study of a flawed huamnkind, the tension in the relationships between characters all yearning for something they haven't got. There's some commonality between Burke and Faulkner, Garcia-Marquez, and Raymond Chandler.
Which single book would I recommend you try? As I said, Heaven's Prisoners is the one that captivated me, and it sets the stage for what will become Robicheaux's landscape. But there are others that stand alone in their excellence. Burning Angel and Sunset Limited are a few more of Burke's finest, and Jolie Blon's Bounce is too. In the Electric Mist is a beautiful book, but you should get to know the writer's work before you dive into that.
In the end, I think I would hand you SUNSET LIMITED and HEAVEN'S PRISONERS and tell you to read the first chapter in Sunset Limited, then the first chapter in Heaven's Prisoners. Either one you ultimately choose will take you on an unforgettable journey.
I'm very curious about how this will turn out for you. Email me if you like: enchantedoak@sbcglobal.net
And here's a very good look at Burke's work in the individual novels: http://www.dancingbadger.com/james_lee_burke.htm

Anonymous said...

Patti, I feel the same as you do about Dubus. Love his stories.

Jeff M.

PS - If you haven't heard yet, NY is supposed to be pretty cool (as in 60's) this weekend.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Clearly he inspires passion and I will try it although four books on researve at the library all came int today.
He dies such a sad death, Jeff. I will be prepared for the weather. Thanks for the warning.

Todd Mason said...

I've read several of the earlier ones, and enjoyed them, and was not knocked out nor turned off by them. They didn't strike me as more inherently Not Crime Fiction than most of what Jerome Charyn wanted us to call The New Mystery, which was crime fiction willing not to sacrifice everything for plot...rather like most of the best crime fiction that came before it. That LSU Press was putting them out didn't impress me as much as it did the Pulitzer committee, but if you don't follow Bill's advice and go chronologically, you could try TWO FOR TEXAS, my first, or ELECTRIC MIST for the strongest horror elements of what I've read so far (rather in the same mode as Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian crime fiction with horror elements, or conversely Manly Wade Wellman's folkloric fantasy and horror, albeit I like the Wellman work at its best better than either McCrumb or Burke at theirs...and I like them).

SteveHL said...

All I’ve read are the Robicheaux books but I have read all of those. As Frank Loose said, there is a large amount of repetition in the plots. The basic story is that while there are a number of unpleasant people in every book, in each there is a sadistic, usually physically deformed maniac who commits terrible crimes and is suspected and confronted by Dave Robicheaux. The maniac then torments Dave and his family. At some point, Dave will tell him that by coming on to Dave’s property, the man has made this a personal matter. Dave and his friend Clete will retaliate with acts that are much more violent and graphic than Mike Hammer ever dreamed off. The violence escalates, several good people are killed, but eventually Dave triumphs. In about every sixth or seventh book Dave’s wife dies (not the same wife each time); he is now with his third, a former nun.

So why keep reading them? Because Burke writes so well and his plots are the least important elements in the books. I think Chad described this perfectly:

I’ve always liked his characters, their backgrounds, their thoughts, the ghosts that haunt them. The setting in a Burke book is an equally important character and looms large across the page.

Robicheaux is a significantly more complex character than most mystery series protagonists. He is a highly moral man who commits horrible acts. He is willing to take any action against evil people to safeguard the innocent.

I would suggest starting with either The Neon Rain (the first book in the series) or Black Cherry Blues. They aren’t the best books in the series but they would be good introductions.

Gonzalo B said...

Start with his short story collection Jesus Out to Sea and you'll get a sense of how he writes. As some others have said, his prose is very lyrical but, at least in my view, not at all cliched or over-the-top purple (think of Richard Wheeler but more poetic). His descriptions of places like Montana are fascinating but his characterizations are equally strong.