Prolific writer James Lee Burke scoffs mildly at the suggestion there is a homespun theology to be found in the pages of his novels, short stories and assorted musings.
Yet careful readers of this “crime novelist,” whose work often spills into the Western and police detective genres, can’t help but notice the many references to an individual’s relationship to higher things and eternal mysteries.
Burke’s “Another Kind of Eden” was released with great fanfare from his publisher in August 2021. In some ways, this book extends the Paradise Lost allusions in the Burke creative canon. His very first novel, “Half of Paradise,” was released in 1965 and features the same protagonist, Aaron Holland Broussard, whose thoughts, observations — usually focused on injustice, suffering and the despoiling of paradise — drive the narrative.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Burke reflected on the Catholic influence in his writing. He still finds creation and man’s place in the grand scheme of things mystifying and well beyond certainties. There is a strong sense of injustice and violence lurking within the pages of Burke’s tales. And while redemption for past misdeeds is always in the offing, there is a suggestion that sin and evil are just waiting for the opportunity to take full command.
“I don’t think in terms of particular religions,” Burke said. “The truth is, subconsciously and probably consciously, too, spirituality has nothing to do with name tags. What does the Bible say — know them by their deeds. The good ones and the bad ones. There is no mystery to the human personality. People are what they do. There are people who almost glow with goodness. There’s an aura about them, and you know they are just fine people. They know something that maybe the rest of us don’t. They make you proud to be a human being. Maybe there is hope for the rest of us.”
Many of Burke’s stories, particularly those involving police investigator (and recovering alcoholic) Dave Robicheaux, touch on the existence of evil and cruelty in contemporary society. A struggling Catholic capable of great sin and violence, Robicheaux articulates many of the probing questions born of the author’s own troubled imagination. Robicheaux readily admits to the sin and wrongdoing in his own life but is especially aggrieved with the existence of evil and violence all around him.
“The Dave Robicheaux character is sort of an Everyman,” Burke told CNS. “He’s the blue-collar representative of all these figures, but he possesses the virtues of the tragic hero. He comes from humble origins. He doesn’t come from royalty. He’s the egalitarian knight, and that’s where Jesus comes in. My vision of Jesus is the same. Here is the egalitarian rebel — a working man — he and his father were carpenters. They took the heat for the rest of us.”
While the problem of evil is a common theme in fiction, for Burke it has become something of an obsession. In “Another Kind of Eden,” Robicheaux speculates on evil people: “They’re people who look like the rest of us, but they feed on evil. Are they born like that? No one knows. They take their secrets to the grave. My own guess is they make a conscious choice to murder the light in their souls. They never come back from that moment.”
Burke’s gift for storytelling appears to have rubbed off on his daughter Alafair, a crime novelist based in New York. The daughter, who also teaches law at Hofstra University in New York, is the author of 20 crime novels, her latest being “The Better Sister” (2019).
She told CNS that storytelling in the Burke household was infectious.
“My father wrote every day in the house,” Alafair said. “His good habits rubbed off on the kids. Anyone who has met my dad knows that he is a born storyteller, and growing up with him talking about history and the world around us was invaluable. I was lucky to have inherited a narrative tradition from my parents, which has made writing a very natural process for me from a young age.”
Despite the hint of evil and violence in Burke’s stories, the author still finds redeeming qualities in many of his characters. But there remains a strong ambivalence that something vital has been lost within humanity.
As Robicheaux confesses in the 2018 novel “Robicheaux,” “We’re a libertine and atavistic people with a patina of Christianity, but by and large, our self-indulgence is that of children and perhaps even an expansion of Christ’s recommendation to abide Caesar.”
It suggests Burke’s observation that toilers in the vineyard can live lives of courage and bravery, but with great susceptibility to being led astray.
Burke’s most recent book, “Every Cloak Rolled in Blood,” features a thought-provoking “letter to readers.” There, Burke outlines what might be a touchstone to his literary inspiration. “The path of Golgotha or the Garden of Gethsemane is not a pleasant journey,” Burke wrote. “This is why I have always believed that the real gladiators are the silent souls whose eyes glow with luminosity that seems to have no source and yet is intimidating. What does this have to do with writing a book? It is my belief that pain is the conduit into the unconscious, where the history of man resides and passes from one generation to the next.”
Burke was born in Houston in 1936 and raised for the most part in the parishes of central Louisiana. After obtaining a master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri, he worked as a reporter, truck driver, farmworker, pipelayer, even prison inmate counselor — before taking a crack at the writing life.
It was a rocky time for Burke, whose first book was out of print for nearly 20 years before he gravitated to the crime fiction genre.
He now resides with his wife, Pearl, on a ranch just outside Missoula, Montana. He often attends Mass at the Catholic chapel at the nearby University of Montana.
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Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto who writes about Catholic fiction and poetry for CNS.