Remembering Milton T. Burton
On December 1st, Texas lost one of its top crime fiction writers, Milton T. Burton. Milton was Texas. With a laugh and personality as big as his body, he sometime came off as Santa Claus with a drawl. He had a diverse background that ranged from ranching, politics, to academics. Probably most important to him was being a teacher of the state’s history. He loved learning it from others and sharing it with those of us who were less informed. After getting to know Milton, I understood why most of his fiction took place in the past.
His debut, Rogue’s Game, got the attention of many mystery booksellers and critics. It was clear Burton’s voice was unique and something we should all pay attention to. Rogue’s Game tells the story of a gambler who wanders into town with more than the big money game on his mind. Milton’s writing is like McMurtry crossed with Chandler. His prose and dialogue capture the place and people of small town Texas, peering into the back rooms and backwoods where you always suspected something was going on.
A fellow writer and friend, George Weir picked up on Milton’s sense of character. “What made Milton stand out as a writer was his way of succinctly capturing the essence of a person such that it reflected their entire character. It might be one little thing that one could hang a tag on to define that person and draw a definite–and colorful–picture of in the mind of the reader. That’s just one. The other was his unique ability to capture the essence of the culture and the environment in a few well-placed words. He was a wordsmith, natively, of a caliber that has largely disappeared from the Earth.”
I got to know Milton last year through George. I had chosen his book Nights Of The Red Moon as a MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month. He contacted me to set up a signing at the store which led to other discussions over plans and future endeavors. I agree with George when he says Milton was a friend as soon as he met you.
And Milton seemed to keep every friend he ever made. After the signing, we all went to his favorite Austin restaurant, the original Threadgill’s. Artists, historians, horse traders, and others were a part of the dozen or so around the table. At his funeral, two men he had known since they hung out at the junior high school smoking tree almost sixty years ago spoke for him. When the pastor, who knew him for thirty years, got up he said, “We can agree on two things. Milton had a lot of friends. And he was crazy.”
Milton always preferred to deal with you over the phone rather than through e-mail. Anytime I had to call him, I’d ask myself, “Do I have an hour to spare?”
We would talk about writing, history, politics, and occasionally about the reason one of us called. He wanted to know why I liked his writing. As someone pursuing the craft during the last part of his life, he wanted to hone in on his strengths so he could exploit them. He also wanted to help me as a fledgling writer. The conversations careened and veered around until Milton had little more to say (remember, these conversations were an hour long, at least), then he’d say, “Mighty fine,” and hang up before you had a chance to say goodbye. I now wonder, with someone who loved people and life so much, at the fact that he was not big on goodbyes.
He was a traditional storyteller in both style and manner. As George described, “He took exception to pretentiousness in any form, whether it was a politician–whom he could, with a laser scalpel wit, divorce them from any reason–or an article-writer who spoke much and said little.”
He disliked what he viewed as writing for trends. “I don’t write for the low carb diet, jogging, head band wearing, mineral water types.”
When I asked him who his target audience was he answered, “The lazy son of a bitch who wants to plant his ass on the couch and read a book.”
I only knew Milton for a year, but every minute reminded me why working with the writers is the best part of my job. He engaged me as a reader and entertained me even more as a friend and colleague.