Scott Butki’s interview with James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke remains a master of his game, one of the best writers out there. Some of the deserved praise – including getting the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America – is for his writing style, some for how he digs deep with plots and fleshes out his unique characters.

While I have interviewed Burke here for his book featuring protagonist Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland I, and many Burke fans, prefer his books about Dave Robicheaux. These books are set in the towns and wetlands of Louisiana.

The new book, Robicheaux, as it name implies, features Dave, and while Dave has often faced major obstacles before in this book they seem to come from everywhere and every direction. Burke often writes about Dave going to AA meetings and struggling to not drink, but in this book the struggle is worse as he not only gets drunk but can’t remember what he’s done while drunk.

Meanwhile, Dave is mourning the loss of his wife, Molly, in a car accident. So when Dave encounters the man who caused the car crash…. And when that man is himself murdered… the big question becomes: Did Dave do it? And since Dave was drunk at the time the answer is not entirely clear.

Burke agreed graciously to let me interview by email. Oh, one other note he talks in the book, and in the interview about the Jefferson Davis 8, which you can read more about here.

The book has this author’s note:

“The literary antecedents of this novel lie in two earlier works of mine. The unsolved murders in Jefferson Davis Parish formed the backdrop for the Dave Robicheaux novel titled The Glass Rainbow… These homicides are often referred to in the media as the Jeff Davis Eight.

The bombing of the Indian village in Latin America happened in 1956. I wrote about this incident in the short story titled “The Wild Wide of Life,” published in the winter issue of The Southern Review in 2017.”

With that let’s get to the interview. Thanks to my minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse, for helping develop some of these questions.

Scott Butki: I am so glad you brought Dave back but boy did you give him some stuff to work on in this novel. Why did you decide to have Dave encounter, and try to investigate the murder of, the man who killed his wife in a car crash?

James Lee Burke: My wife was in a similar accident in New Iberia and almost died.

SB: I’ve always admired how you write about the struggle so many face with alcoholism and using AA. Why did you decide to have Dave fall off the wagon in this book?

JLB: I don’t plan the books. I think they already exist in the unconscious.

SB: In this book Dave seems a haunted man, partly due to what I asked about in the earlier questions. What did you hope to accomplish by putting him through all of this?

JLB: Mortality is not an elective study.

SB: I am happy you brought back some of Dave’s friends in this book. Why did you decide to do so?

JLB: They’re among the most interesting and brave people I have ever known.

SB: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

JLB: To fear an embryonic dictatorship and the divisiveness and racial hatred and self-doubt a dictator can inculcate in an electorate that loses faith in the Republic.

SB: When Dave imagines a just world what does that look like?

JLB: The egalitarian world that Jesus spoke of.

SB: What do you think might have worked in Dave to form his desire to be a hero, to throw himself into the ugliest mess and try to make it right?

JLB: Dave is the Chaucerian good knight. He’s a man of conscience and honor and is not capable of being otherwise.

SB: A friend, Meg, asked me to pass on this comment: “I love Dave as a wounded hero.  I love his violence and how it lives along with his spirituality. I love the descriptions of the weather and the land. I think most of us identify with him as we struggle to be good people while dragging along concrete blocks of illness injury addiction or other complications and difficulties.” Do you get a lot of feedback like that?  

JLB: Yes, I have. I don’t think a writer could receive a better compliment.

SB: In past interviews you have told me you tend to draw from older sources, like the Bible and Greek mythology rather than contemporary ones. Why is that?

JLB: I subscribe to Jung’s notion of inherited memory. I think the great stories are always within each of us. My father once said that both science and art are simply the incremental discovery of what already exists.

SB: One thing many fans of yours, including me, love is your use of language. Was your writing always like that or was there a time when you wrote closer to the traditional mysteries with lots of short sentences with the focus on plot instead of description and language?

JLB: I read the Hardy Boys when I was kid, and Mickey Spillane in high school, but neither had any influence on me. The great influences were John Dos Passos. James T. Farrell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Penn Warren.

Book Review: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke

After close to five years, James Lee Burke brings back his Iberia Parrish sheriff’s detective, Dave Robicheaux, simply using his last name for the title of the hero’s twenty-first mystery. On the surface, Burke appears to be playing many of the series’ old standards: colorful, knuckle-dragging gangsters, old money families, and ghosts of both the Civil War and Civil Rights south. However, changing times have brought those standards to new light with Burke giving them a more complex examination.

He layers plot upon plot, making Dave’s life even more miserable than usual. We find him grieving Molly, the the third wife he’s buried. He confronts the man who hit her in a car accident that killed her, then slips from his sobriety. Dragged out of his drunken black out, he visits the crime scene of a man beaten to death. He recognizes him as the driver and notices the bruises on his own knuckles.

Since he’s a suspect, he can’t be put on that case and has to look into a rape accusation. The accuser is the wife of his friend, Levon Broussard, a novelist with liberal leanings that only come in second to the romanticism of this family’s confederate past. The accused is another contemporary, Jimmy Nightingale, a charmer from an old money family with ambition going in several directions, a senate seat currently one of them. Before his black out, Dave set up a dinner with all involved to help out his train wreck of a buddy Clete. Jimmy held the mortgage on his Clete’s house, but wanted to option one of Levon’s books for a movie he would do with Tony Nemo, a mobster with movie ambitions. Toss in some unsolved murders, a white supremacist leader, a scary hired killer with a code, and a murdered New Orleans pimp that ties most of it together and you have the makings of a quintessential Robicheaux novel. One could argue that the choice of title comes from a delivery of the elements we expect.

As we are hit with many of the reoccurring tropes and themes of the books, hero, writer, and reader now have more complicated views of them. As in one of the more lauded novels, In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead, a movie dealing with the Civil War is being filmed, this time with Robicheaux’s daughter Alifair working on the screenplay. As in that book, Dave sees the ghosts of “boys in butternut”, but Alifair wonders if they can make movie heroes out of the Confederates who are “today’s Nazi’s”. Much like Levon, Dave can’t help but hold onto their gallantry. For Levon, though, it goes deeper. It’s where his demons rest and can be easily awakened to challenge his better angels. Jimmy Nightshade uses that heritage and populism to be one of the scariest power brokers Dave’s gone up against. He has an ability to sweep up the masses into believing him as a savior for the new south, especially the disenfranchised. Dave observes his constituents at a rally.

His adherents wore baseball caps and T-shirts and tennis shoes and dresses made in Thailand. Walmart, a smartphone, a Tundra, and bread and circuses were symbols; they were a culture. The poorest neighborhoods in the state always had a coin-operated car wash. In twenty-four hours, a drop in oil prices could take everything they owned. They were the bravest people on earth, bar none. They got incinerated in oil-well blowouts, crippled by tongs and chains on the drill floor, and hit by lightning laying pipe in a swamp in the middle of an electric storm, and they did it all without complaint. If you wanted to win a revolution, this was the bunch to get on your side. The same could be said if you wanted to throw the Constitution in the trash can.

It’s difficult not to think of another politician and election when reading this passage.

With everything going on, the focus of the story is Dave’s relationship with his former NOPD partner Clete Pucel. Clete, working as a private detective, imbibes in every vice Robicheaux struggles to avoid. He often operates as a violent Falstaff to our hero in the series, yet Dave views him as the noblest man he knows. Their friendship is rooted in the that they each understand the other  better than themselves. Clete is the first to see through Jimmy and makes it a personal mission to be a thorn in his side, while Robicheaux is partially taken in by the southern gentility he pretends to reject. Jimmy and Levon are darker mirrors of Dave, with the reflection of Clete being the way to lead him out of the fun house. It is their friendship and acceptance that leads to any form of justice or grace in the book.

Robicheaux proves that James Lee Burke’s hero can be timeless yet delve deep within his time. He is practically a Greek hero, enduring tragedies, stuck between the wars of petty gods, with the Achilles heel of alcoholism. He may be a step behind the times, but only adds to his complexity and character. He has aged well with his humor and full heart intact. May we be so lucky in our worlds that grow more messy and complicated.

If you like James Lee Burke…

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery


James Lee Burke
has helped draw general fiction fans over to the genre with his rich literary prose and complex heroes like Dave Robicheaux. If you’re shopping for a fan who has read everything of his or are a fan yourself, here are books by three authors who share Burke’s style or approach to writing.

bayou trilogyThe Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell has a wonderful sense of place and prose as these three collected novels featuring Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt bayou parish with family that have a foot on the other side of the law. Poetic writing with vivid spots of sudden violence. You can find copies of The Bayou Trilogy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9781453247136Coyote Wind by Peter Bowen

Montana cattle inspector, sometime deputy, part Metise Indian, and champion fiddle player Gabriel DuPre in a character with an indelible voice. In his first appearance has him looking into discovered wreckage of a thirty year old plane crash that holds a headless and handless corpse that leads to his own family secrets. A great look at culture on the fringes. You can find copies of Coyote Wind on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

last good kissThe Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

As far as I’m concerned the greatest private eye novel there is. Vietnam veteran, bartender, and sometime detective C.W. Shugrue travels with modern west with an alcoholic writer in search of a missing daughter and possibly a vanishing America. What Hunter S. Thompson did in journalism and Pekinpah did in film, Crumley did in crime fiction.You can find copies of The Last Good Kiss on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with James Lee Burke

MysteryPeople contributer Scott Butki interviews James Lee Burke about his latest novel, House of the Rising Sun

A bit about the book…


James Lee Burke is one of the best fiction writers around and I have yet to be disappointed by anything he has written. His renowned series about Dave Robicheaux has won many impressive awards, including the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Mr. Burke may be best known for his Robicheaux series, but he has also started two other series, one starring protagonist Texas attorney Billy Bob Holland and one starring Billy Bob’s cousin, Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland.

Read More »

The Mystery Community Takes the Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness and donations to combat ALS is starting to run through the crime fiction community.

als alifair
Alifair Burke, author of  two mystery series, one starring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, and the other driven by Portland, OR, Prosecutor Samantha Kincaid, accepted the challenge from Michael Connelly, author of the Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch series and the Mickey Haller novels, who also dumped the ice water on her.


Two of the people she challenged were McKenna Jordan, owner of Houston’s Murder By The Book, and her dad, James Lee Burke, winner of the Edgar Award and writer of the Dave Robicheaux mysteries.
reed farrell coleman

One of our favorites, Reed Farrel Coleman, acclaimed author of The Hollow Girl,  took the challenge.

He challenged SJ Rozan, Hilary Davidson, and Gary Phillips. Gary accepted the challenge on Reed’s facebook and Hilary and SJ are good sports, so look forward to more videos.

TWO NEW VOICES FOR MYSTERYPEOPLE

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72
TWO NEW VOICES FOR MYSTERYPEOPLE

It’s an honor to introduce you to new voices to our MysteryPeople blog. One was my mentor in the mystery business and is one of those rare people that has even a darker taste than me. The other was a former customer of mine, who recently became a employee at BookPeople and holds one of the sharpest minds about the genre. I asked them to introduce themselves:


Bobby McCue

I dove into the mystery world in 1980 as a reader and a collector. In 2000, I started working at The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles and became the manager in 2004. The store was sold  in 2009 and in 2011 the new owners closed the store. A lot of authors passed through the comfy confines in those 10 years.  The nickname “Dark Bobby” was thrust upon me from multiple people for my leanings toward the dark and hard-boiled side of crime fiction.

Staples on my recommendation shelf were:
Dope by Sara Gran
Birdman byMo Hayder
Jolie Blon’s Bounce by James Lee Burke
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Pike by Benjamin Whitmer

My favorite book of 2013 was Others of My Kind by James Sallis


Molly Odintz

My name is Molly, I started working at BookPeople rather recently, and I’m a mystery-holic. In particular, I enjoy everything hard-boiled and noir and am a discerning consumer of procedurals and thrillers. I ascribe to a Hobbesian view of the world, which means I like my mysteries, for the most part, to be nasty, brutal and short. My taste gravitates towards the socially aware and on occasion historical, and I am a sucker for a well-researched period piece. Many of my favorite noir novels won’t be found necessarily in the mystery section, as I deeply enjoy crossovers into Sci-Fi and fantasy. I love reading detective novels, but I also love analyzing them, so if you ever want to get highbrow about the lowbrow, I’m your man. The myriad variations within the detective novel conventions eternally fascinate me.

You can look for me in the store for recommendations and look out for my posts online as well – I am launching two blog series, each monthly, one of which will focus on international crime writing and the other of which will profile the more socially aware books and authors represented on our shelves.


We are excited to have two new contributors to the MysteryPeople blog. June has already been incredible month and there is still more to come. Be sure to stay up-to-date with the MysteryPeople Crime Fiction Fest, and always have your alibi ready!