Author Q & A: James Lee Burke
Steve Lee / Big Issue In The North
Perhaps the finest American noir writer of this age, James Lee Burke’s work is both disturbing and redemptive. The Glass Rainbow, his 18th novel to feature the Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, mixes moral quandaries, dark forces and gripping action in equal measure.
Although obviously fictional, there must be elements of yourself in the characters of Dave Robicheaux and his colourful cohort Clete Purcell.
Well, let’s say all their character defects are quite recognisable to anyone who knows me.
Take your choice! Dave and Clete are the equivalent of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; one is the idealist who burns with this chivalric address to problems, the other is the trickster, the Sybarist, the sensualist. Yet their personalities are not that clear-cut – they’re really two forms of the same person. One’s incomplete without the other. These characters have their origins in Elizabethan and Ancient Greek drama.
Do you think that’s what makes your writing stand-out in the crowded crime fiction genre, this duality you give your characters?
I think you just went to the heart of it. It is the contradictions that give them their dynamic - you basically need strong character defects to provide humanity. Both men are on the side of justice and they try to do as well as they can with what they’ve got. And everyone knew a Clete at school – he’s really the man who gets even for the rest of us.
The demarcation between good and evil is often blurred in your work. As you experience life, do you think this becomes more apparent in the real world too?
As one grows older, one finds that defining human experience with exactitude is. . . put it this way: we’re often saved from ourselves by life’s fools and jesters and idiots. History is littered with clowns who have suddenly changed the world to a degree no one could ever have predicted.
Your love for the city of New Orleans, or what it once was, shines through in your fiction too. How has the place changed over the years?
For me it will never be the same again but, you know, I come out of a different era. The city, I believe, was killed three times. Once with the introduction of crack cocaine in the housing projects during the Reagan years, which had a devastating effect. Second, hurricane Katrina did enormous damage in 2005. But I believe the real death of the city took place when the central Washington government, after the floods, chose to ignore the problem. Generally speaking, what happened under the Bush administration took us across the wrong Rubicon. I don’t know if this country will ever get back from it.
So, past and present, who do you regard as true masters of the crime fiction genre?
The best, historically, is James M. Cain. Why he’s not read more today, I just don’t understand. And Mario Puzo too. For some reason he was rarely called a crime novelist but his entire career was based on his knowledge of the worst criminals known.
Finally, The Glass Rainbow leaves readers with a real cliff-hanger - will we be hearing from Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcell again?
Honestly, I’m not really sure. The way I write, I never think ahead more than two scenes as two scenes is how much I write each day. I’ve always subscribed to the notion that the story is written by a hand other than mine. I believe every artist knows the story is in the unconscious and the book, the song, the painting is put together by someone else. Creation is really a matter of incremental discovery, a gradual discovery of what already exists. In life itself, as in literature, it’s a terrible vanity, a terrible assumption to make plans. At a certain age, everyone arrives at that conclusion.