Saturday, September 1, 2012


There was a time when I considered James Lee Burke one of my favorite authors, and I still read his books, having finished two recently while waiting for the latest Robicheaux to hit my desk. He can be downright expressive with description, positively lyrical in fact, but he is also like that super-bright student who just slides by on talent because he can, taking the C rather than working for the A. Yes, I am reluctantly saying that Burke is a lazy writer. I am starting to feel about him like a spouse of forty years who you love and never plan to leave, but you know their every tick and repetition by heart and can see through personal screens others cannot. Although you let them get by with the irritations, they sometimes grind at you. Nevertheless, at the end of the day you crawl into the bed and hope for another day. I've written about some of these issues before (see BURKE BASHING), but while reading Cimarron Rose and Heartwood, a competing series Burke engaged in that may just have been his way to get some distance from Robicheaux or perhaps to just make some more cash, but I found weaknesses and repetitions that kept popping up with irritating regularity. Some would say that I am nitpicking, and why even comment on these matters when no one really cares, especially since I will likely keep on reading his books anyway. And I will. . . I truly enjoy Robicheaux, Cleve, and the world Burke created for them. Some writing problems may be because Burke has gotten to be such a bestseller than publishers don't put editors on his books. Or perhaps not, but then that means we have a writer who is unable to change the temper and design of his words or stories, despite the often wonderful descriptive rifts, especially in developing the dialogue. Every character from the littlest to eldest, male or female, domestic or foreign, cop or civilian, ghost or seer, good or bad, talks and thinks as if they are one. True, like so many serial writers, there is little alteration of basic plot, solutions and action seldom develop beyond a well-worn path, but in Burke's work his characters practically all have the same brains and delivery---heroes, villains, and others. Action, plot, and pacing will often mirror that of previous books. You can be almost certain that someone will get beaten in a bathroom (often with a head put in a toilet, or the threat of such); some character, often the protagonist, will pick up an object and sucker punch a rival; a mystical spirit or individual will provide guidance and/or pithy commentary from beyond; one (or more) women will be constantly irritated with the main character (and often have a short life span to boot), with conversations tortured and angry; and someone will always be told to take something out of their mumbling mouth (in Heartwood it was "brown mule", and there is also a reference to taking shit out of one's teeth---a two-fer---but in other books multiple characters say distinctly similar words, with only the item changing, be it mashed potatoes, mud, marbles, etc). It was aggravating enough in his earlier books, but redundancy escalated in the Billy Bob Holland series. Repeatedly Burke employs familiar phrases, or outright retells information, as if the reader is an idiot. In some cases he does it literally within a few paragraphs, three times in two pages ("a Berkeley graduate, in Vermont"). He insists on spelling out every name, almost as if he is a high schooler padding his term paper. He employs favorite words ad nauseum, such as dimpled, flecked, marbled, flopped, fecund, rippled and a host of others, as well as scenes regular readers of have become all too comfortable with. In one he had a thing for organdy. In both BBH books, I think he mentioned his horse was a Morgan about three times, apiece. And his narrator's voice occasionally veers toward the racist, sexist side, particularly when several characters as well use objectionable words (which I do not believe reflects Burke's actual beliefs, as evidenced by occasional sermons that take a liberal bent). When a reader tackles only one or two of Burke's books, he can get away with it, but his loyal fans deserve better. I wonder if this is part of the reason he is not placed amongst the higher pantheon of writers, adored but not respected at the same level.

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