America’s Greatest Author: James Lee Burke

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Review by Jack Smith

It turns out that one of America’s greatest writers lives next store in New Iberia, Louisiana. He is also known to spend time at his second home in Missoula, Montana. He was born in Houston, Texas, in 1936, and spent his first twenty years doing almost anything but writing. James Lee was a pipeliner in Texas, a landman for Sinclair Oil in Louisiana, a surveyor in Colorado, and a long distance truck driver. One of his first novels, “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” stayed under submission for nine years and was rejected more than 111 times. When finally published, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Times compared him to Faulkner and Sartre. His most popular mystery series featuring ‘fictional character’ Dave Robicheaux has been translated into almost every language in the world. Dave Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic, and current alcoholic, Clete Purcel, are former disgraced New Orleans Homicide detectives nicknamed the ‘Bobbsey Twins.’ Dave is currently a detective with the New Iberia Police department and Clete is a sometimes employed Private Detective who never met a hooker or pole dancer with whom he didn’t fall in love. Together, they know every character in the underbelly of crime from New Orleans to New Iberia. They served together during the Vietnam War and that is the catalyst of their wet and dry alcoholic binges. Operating on just this side of law and order, they manage to solve horrific crimes while invoking the ire of the police and criminals alike.

His newest book, the 40th in the series, pits Dave and Clete against two of Louisiana’s oldest and bloodiest crime families. In a plot that reeks of Romeo and Juliet, star crossed lovers Johnny Shondell and Isolde Balangie run away after she is promised as a sex slave to Johnny’s uncle. Burke flirts with belief in a parallel world, and Dave has many visits with Confederate General John Bell Hood from Texas. I do compare Burke with William Faulkner, but I can pronounce more of his words. James Lee Burke is by far my favorite author and I hope he will become one of yours.