James Lee Burke discusses 'Creole Belle' and the end of 'traditional' America
'Creole Belle' author James Lee Burke talks about the inspiration for his new book and his detective protagonist Dave Robicheaux.
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This month, Robicheaux returns in James Lee Burke’s 19th book in the series, "Creole Belle." It picks up where the previous book left off, with Robicheaux in a recovery unit in New Orleans. Morphine clouds his head and, even more than usual, the self-aware detective struggles to separate the past from the present.
Burke, 75, creates lyrical mysteries with what can only be described as deceptive ease. Whether it’s Robicheaux, stand-alone novels, or separate series starring Texas cousins Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland, the themes remain constant. Every novel Burke writes delves into moral ambiguity, the menaces of greed and violence, the degradation of people and land, the juxtaposition of natural beauty and man-made horror and, finally, the sublime joy of human love and loyalty.
No matter his digressions, Burke’s stories retain tight plots amid the languid descriptions and observations of corruption and conceit. Robicheaux made his creator wealthy, taking readers into both rural and urban Louisiana (the detective is a former New Orleans cop who still ventures into the big city) and offering insight on a landscape that is literally disappearing.
Burke spent much of his early life on the Gulf Coast shuttling between Texas and Louisiana and later moved to New Iberia, La., the setting for the Robicheaux books. The author and his wife, parents of four grown children, including crime novelist Alafair Burke, have long split their time between Louisiana and Montana.
Both the author and his best-known character embody Faulkner’s maxim of loving a place “not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
Consider this observation from Robicheaux in Creole Belle, told once again in his first-person voice:
“In Louisiana, which has the highest rate of illiteracy in the union and the highest percentage of children born to single mothers, few people worry about the downside of casinos, drive-through daiquiri windows, tobacco depots, and environmental degradation washing away the southern rim of the state.”
Burke never shies away from gritty crime patois or slashing violence, but he also slips in enough sociological observation to connect lowly street thugs with equally loathsome politicians and craven corporate executives. And, lest anyone get the idea the novels are preachy, think again. Robicheaux fights criminals, but he fights himself, his boss Helen Soileau and, as a recovering alcoholic, baser instincts and cravings.
If those aspects fail to grab a reader’s attention, the snap in the dialogue does the trick. Robicheaux’s longtime pal, Clete Purcel, offers a typical example in the new book, telling a shady character, “The day you’re honest is the day the plaster will fall from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”
Burke has no such problems, as he made clear during a recent interview. Following are excerpts from that conversation.
On the origins of the new book: "The two books are actually one novel, one story ["The Glass Rainbow" and "Creole Belle"]. The antagonists represent the same forces, these guys who are degrading the environment. The story dwells on mortality. Not only the mortality of individuals but the end of an era, a generation. At least [from] Dave Robicheaux’s perspective, the end of a traditional America.