Wednesday, August 20, 2008

James Lee Burke's novels

James Lee Burke is one of those crime genre novelists who has created a cottage industry that is obviously self-sustaining as a result of his prolific output and his popularity. He has published 32 books to date, 17 of the Dave Robicheaux series, 4 Billy Bob Holland's, and then his other fictional output which may or may not be of the detective/crime genre. I wouldn't know. This is all new to me.

Last week I entered into his world for the first time when picking up "The Tin Roof Meltdown", a novel set in New Orleans and bayou country at the time of Katrina. My take on Burke is that he is in the top tier of the crime genre with a talent for capturing the atmosphere of places, meaning dialogue/dialect, subcultures, and physical setting. My reason for picking up the book, reading this bayou resident's description of Katrina, was rewarded. His writing may be fiction, but some of this description was not and what he describes is in some instances more harrowing than what we know already, or maybe just painful to take a look at again. The novel itself is pretty much standard fare in that a tough but decent guy who is smarter than he seems at first is set against just absolutely horrible villains plus a few characters who do surprise changes of character as the story develops. If one is in the mood for this type of book, "Blowdown" captures the attention and from time to time has some insightful asides, even a few good enough to be page markers. Like most novels of this genre, however, it just ends when it decides to end and you're left hanging, thinking ok, so that's it. What did I get out of this? In most cases, entertainment or the passing of an airplane ride or sit on the beach. That can be enough.

In "The Tin Roof Blowdown" I got the feeling, even though I had never read one of Burke's books before, that there was a push for greatness. It's understandable. With the legitimate Katrina related hook, there was the chance to get to a broader audience, and expand a literary reputation. Why do I say that. The descriptions in the book of scenery, places and people's faces were elaborately florid, verbose, and at times repetitive. And then there were occasional references to the work of titans of literature, there were quite a few but William Blake comes to mind now, that seemed more than a little forced. Since I was ok with the book in general I decided to test that thought out, went back to the library and picked up another Burke book, this time a Billy Bob Holland, called "In the Moon of the Red Ponies".

To some extent this was a better written book because, my observation based on having now having read 6% of his output, this book had virtually no, maybe none, references to writers of great books and the writing was overall more sparse. Don't get me wrong, Burke loves to exhaustively, or ingly, describe the way people and their faces look and nature's scenery in detail, but it was toned down by half in "Red Ponies". The startling thing, reading the two back to back(the books published in 2007 and 2004), was that the template was almost identical. "Red Ponies" is set in Montana, the author's second home, and has a protagonist with a different name but the set-up and evolution of the story is the same. Of course it's no real surprise. Whether it's a television series or book series, you come back for more of the familiar. I prefer books, but try reading two by the same author in a week.

This has not been meant as a knock on genre books. Crime, mystery, I read my share. And the comment that "it just ends when it decides to end" can apply widely. Richard Price, apparently viewed by the New York Times Book Review as a successful crossover between genre and literature as evidenced by their cover page review a couple of months ago of his new book "Lush Life", does exactly the same thing. The ending of "Lush Life" is a resolution when all story lines are exhausted not unlike the conclusion of "Red Ponies".

Anyway, this post must now just decide to end. In closing, my absolute favorites in the crime mystery genre are books by Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri. Both write books with a sensibility that leaves me feeling that have I have experienced characters that have an attractive approach to life. They have humor built on life observations and not jokes, and they have good guys and bad guys but don't delight in detailed violence. Those endings though, sometimes they fit the genre but at times they are graceful, especially in the case of Camilleri. Regardless of the close, with either author I still feel refreshed.


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