If you’re a James Lee Burke fan, you don’t need me to tell you that the collection, even if I’d paid a hundred quid for it, would have been good value for money. Even the cover was fabulous, featuring a moody, sepia-toned black-and-white shot of a wrecked and gun-shot car abandoned on desert flats, a dark and stormy sky brewing overhead. As for the novels themselves, well, you could have substituted the car on the cover for any of the protagonists. Men gnarled and worn down, sand-blasted by lives lived too hard on the edge of nowhere. When I think of those novels now I think of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, of Richard Ford’s THE ULTIMATE GOOD LUCK, of Raymond Carver and Hemingway’s TRUE AT FIRST LIGHT.
That’s not to suggest that James Lee Burke is a writer on a par with literary giants such as McCarthy, Carver, Ford and Hemingway, or trying to sneak Burke, who is marketed as a crime writer, into the literary pantheon through the back door. I’m saying, definitively and brooking no argument, that James Lee Burke writes novels so good that he’s entitled to have the likes of McCarthy, Carver et al compared (favourably) to James Lee Burke, and I can only pity anyone who is so blinkered as to be blind to that fact.
The first time I walked into a bookstore after EIGHTBALL BOOGIE was published (a fine emporium in Galway called Charlie Byrne’s, as it happens), said tome was nestling on the shelf beside those of James Lee Burke. Even at the time, high on the improbability of it all, I didn’t kid myself that EIGHTBALL deserved to be in the same shop, let alone on the same shelf; still, it was nice to see it there, if only for the incongruity. Even now, looking at the copy of The James Lee Burke Collection I’ve fished down off the shelf, I’m getting a shiver of anticipation at re-reading those novels yet again at some distant point in the future.
So how come I’ve never read a Dave Robicheaux novel? Well, it’s complicated. Partly it’s to do with the sheer volume of Robicheaux novels (18 at the last count) and no longer having the kind of reading time that would allow me dive in with THE NEON RAIN and work my way forward; but mainly it’s because the writer part of my brain (tender, fragile, endlessly prone to self-doubt) understands that repeated exposure to James Lee Burke does very little to promote confidence in a writer. To read one great novel is one thing, and there are few pleasures to beat accidentally stumbling across a terrific novel; and nothing pleases me more, when I do discover a great novel, than to be in a position to trumpet the good news from the rooftops. But to willingly subject myself to repeated excellence such as James Lee Burke offers? At least Cormac McCarthy has the good grace to publish a novel only once every five or six years, or more; and Hemingway and Carver had the good grace to die, and so on; but Burke does it year after year after year.
I do look forward to that distant point in the future, when the kids are reared and my fortune made, and I’m sitting on the balcony of my pension on a remote Greek island, a pomegranate sun sinking into the bottle-green sea, and reaching up to the bookshelf for THE NEON RAIN. Until then, though, I think James Lee Burke will have to wait, even if the signed copy of THE GLASS RAINBOW I received from Irish crime fiction’s most dedicated friend, Noo Yoik’s Joe Long, sits temptingly on a shelf within easy reach …
All of which is a roundabout way of pointing you towards a rather fine piece the Dark Lord John Connolly published at his interweb lair, which is the introduction he wrote to a new and limited edition of THE GLASS RAINBOW published by Scorpion Press. To wit:
“For many of my generation of mystery writers, James Lee Burke is the greatest living author in our field, and one of the most accomplished literary stylists in modern American letters. For better or worse, I would not be writing without his influence, and all that I have written, I have written in his shadow. To borrow a phrase used by Jack Nicholson of Marlon Brando: “When he dies, everybody else moves up one.”For the rest, clickety-click here …
“Burke’s preeminence is due, in no small part, to the manner in which he came to the mystery novel. Before publishing, in 1987, The Neon Rain, the first book to feature the recurring character of Dave Robicheaux, he had read little in the genre, the work of Raymond Chandler and James Crumley apart, so he approached the task of writing a mystery largely freed from any obligation to the perceived requisites. The books that have emerged in the decades since are, in a sense, only incidentally mysteries: they are, first and foremost, literate, literary, socially engaged novels. To read them is to encounter a great novelist applying his gifts to a sometimes underrated form, reinventing and reinvigorating it by his presence …”