“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Burke On Burke; Or, Why Some Writers Are Too Good To Read

Many, many moons ago, when I was still young enough to read without prejudice or expectation, I picked up a book called ‘The James Lee Burke Collection’. I was poor then, or a little poorer than I am now, and three novels in one book represented value for money that was impossible to resist, especially as I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore at the time. The collection comprised TO THE BRIGHT AND SHINING SUN, LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD, and THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE.
  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.”
  “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 …”
  For the rest, clickety-click here

11 comments:

Michael Malone said...

I totally understand where you are coming from here, Dec, however I can't restrain myself. Comparison is fatal so I don't do it. Instead I look on it as a lesson and try to learn from him.

I see at ...for me ...as a being like a situation where a young footballer, golfer, tennis player or whatever, is playing alongside a sporting legend. They are only going to raise their game and learn from the great man.

Arlene said...

Great post Declan. I finished The Glass Rainbow the other night, staying up until my eyes were gritty with sleep to do so (just one more chapter, okay just one more chapter, oh I might as well keep reading, hah). I love his books and his languid writing style, Bitterroot is still one of my top 10 novels, but like Michael above I'd never do the comparison game, namely because there is none, and secondly because it would depress the socks off me.
I feel that way whenever I open the cover of a Daniel Woodrell novel too, almost nervous about what is in store. For that matter I can't wait for the The Dark Lord's next tome. But ain't it grand to have such authors out there who make us sit up and take notice? How dull it would be without them.
Arlene

Declan Burke said...

I hear you, folks. The truth about the Robicheaux novels is that I really don't have the time to go back and start with Neon Rain, and I'd hate to dip in at a later stage; although I am very tempted to run with The Glass Rainbow right now.

As for the rest: if I had a choice in the matter, I'd only read novels that weren't just better than anything I can do myself (not too difficult, it has to be said), but novels better than anything I could ever imagine writing myself. And not just to learn from them, or to force myself to aim higher; just for the pure joy of reading superb writers.

Cheers, Dec

Naomi Johnson said...

Nobody's promised tomorrow so why not read as many good books (or that hold the promise of being good)as you can right now? No need to start at the beginning of the Robicheaux series either. I've read them all out of order, starting with Jole Blon's Bounce and jumping back and forth, and that's worked just fine. And if you feel as though you'd like to read more Burke but have no time for 18 books, then limit it to The Tin-Roof Blowdown and The Glass Rainbow. The other books are certainly worthy reads, but those two are magnificent.

Dana King said...

"The truth about the Robicheaux novels is that I really don't have the time to go back and start with Neon Rain,"

I call bullshit, though I'm sure you don;t see it that way. It's not like you'll have to put your life on hold and read them all. Read one a year, or every other year. Take advantage of your youth. The Robicheaux books are wonderful reads, unlike any other series.

I, too, don;t feel I'll ever write half that well. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy his work, and that I don't learn some little thing from almost every Robicheaux book that makes me a little better writer.

Kiwicraig said...

I understand what you're saying Declan. I've actually read three of JLB's Robicheuax novels in the past month, over the summer break here in NZ (NEON RAIN, LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS, TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN), and they are just on another level to most other crime and thriller fiction I read.

Every line in every paragraph is layered and lush. As a (in my case non-fiction, journalist) writer, it almost makes you cry to realise you can never, ever write something like that....

lil Gluckstern said...

When I pick up a Robicheaux book, I am transported to a familiar place, one that I have never seen, but I can smell and hear...and feel. Connolly's tribute is apt, I'd like to add Swan Peak to the books that others have recommended, because there is a window to Burke's view on his very important feelings about society. Not his best, but worthy. So important is his view of friendship, his love of those who love him. I hope for the next book. Burke's courage and honesty shine in his writing, and we are there with him. (You don't know what you will do, Declan, your sense of immediacy is just different from some other writers.)

Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd only read novels that weren't just better than anything I can do myself (not too difficult, it has to be said), but novels better than anything I could ever imagine writing myself. And not just to learn from them, or to force myself to aim higher; just for the pure joy of reading superb writers.

I can think of no worthier reason to read. I have been reading lots of Dashiell Hammett in recent months, so I know something of this splendid goal myself.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

col2910 said...

Probably very good to read, as no question his writing is superb.

It's probably churlish to complain, but at episode 18 of Dave the legend, inevitably conquering his demons, whilst overcoming the bad guys it's tiring - well it is to this reader.

I'd far rather read about Dave getting knocked off and Clete Purcell unleashed as his avenging angel.....but it won't happen.

IMHO the series has gone on far too long, and I just can't take Robicheaux seriously any more

author Scott Nicholson said...

Burke. Sigh.

Scott Nicholson
http://www.hauntedcomputer.com

Frank said...

Agreed. It's the descriptions of micro physical movements that make the writing so convincing ("he pinched the fatigue from the corner of his eyes"..."... his thoughts collecting in his eyes.." combined with a dry humour that I love.
Frank