My introduction to the world of mystery novels came from a strange triumvirate: Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Carolyn Keene. Keene's character, Nancy Drew, is the ultimate teenage sleuth. The stories, while predictable, contain elements of danger and the gothic that tickled my fancy. Nancy encouraged my imagination to run wild, and I often pretended to solve mysteries just like she did.
The influences of Poe and Doyle took root in darker soil. Those bad boys whisked my pre-teen brain along on many a scary adventure. They introduced me to "the dark side" of detective fiction, and while some of my own novels are "light," my reading often takes me back to this terrain of brooding horizons and the exploration of the savage human heart.
James Lee Burke owns this landscape.
I met Dave Robicheaux, Burke's series character, while attending the Tennessee William's Festival in New Orleans. Wandering about the festival bookstore, I picked up Burke's Black Cherry Blues. My first general fiction novel had just been published, and though I loved and read mysteries, I had no plans to write in the genre. In truth, I was a bit intimidated -- I didn't believe I could manage plot well enough to write a mystery.
Back at my hotel room, feet propped up, I cracked the book. Burke's first sentence anchored me in a world of violent weather and flawed characters. New Orleans disappeared, replaced by the snaking coils of the Bayou Teche and the Iberia Parish marshland.
I'd thought to relax, but the opening dream sequence of a murder was so brutal, painful, and unstoppable, I didn't breathe while reading it.
Burke writes with blazing passion and a command of language, creating vivid settings and compelling characters. Dave Robicheaux is a flawed man, a non-drinking alcoholic whose sense of justice collides with the realities of life around him. He is a product of his surroundings, a place both beautiful and deadly. Like the best characters, Dave has been shaped and formed by the very soil.
As a native of Mississippi, I know the legacy of land - and the conflicted history that comes with a strong sense of place. I identify with Robicheaux because he fights against injustice derived from a sense of entitlement that can, unfortunately, be part of "place."
Burke is masterful in his ability to portray this. He's been a tremendous influence on my writing, from my darker books such as Penumbra and Fever Moon to the humorous Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mysteries. Sarah Booth and her friends crack wise, but there is a dark heart to the stories that belie the cozy label. The pull of the land, with its history of cotton and blood, is never far from Sarah Booth's consciousness.
When I read a Burke novel, I'm acutely aware of the skill he brings to the page. He sets a high standard. One I'll spend my writing life attempting to achieve.
What's your favorite James Lee Burke novel?
Editor's Note: Carolyn Haines is the ward winning author of seventeen novels, including nine titles in the Sara Booth Delaney series.