Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

James Lee Burke and the Creole Belle

James Lee Burke is number one on my guilty-pleasures list.

I first met his main character Dave Robicheaux in A Morning For Flamingos, a book I picked up in a military library at Lindsay Air Station, a post that doesn’t even exist any more. In the cold dark endless winter in Wiesbaden, Germany, James Lee Burke lit up my life. I had thought I was picking up just another escapist mystery novel, but when James Lee Burke puts words together to describe the way a storm moves in over the bayou, prose becomes poetry.

There is a downside. Whether it is his character Dave Robicheaux, the former New Orleans cop, now head homicide investigator in New Iberia, Louisiana, or his Hackberry Holland series set in West Texas, James Lee Burke’s books are filled with extreme violence and disturbing images that live in your head for a long time.

I’ve recommended James Lee Burke to friends, some of whom have said “Why do you read this trash??? It is HORRIBLE! It is full of over-the-top violence!”

And then again . . . he is writing about some really really bad people. They are out there. There are people who exist who inflict cruelty. I don’t understand it, I can’t begin to fathom where the urge would come from, but I’ve seen it. It’s out there. James Lee Burke pulls up that rock and exposes the dark happenings underneath.

On one level, as I started reading Creole Belle, I thought “Oh James Lee Burke, stop! Stop! It’s the same old formula! A downtrodden victim (often a beautiful woman) cries for help. You and Clete start looking for information and end up beating people up and then they retaliate by threatening your family! There is a rich, beautiful woman who seems vulnerable and who you kind of like, but she is complicated. There are rich amoral people who keep their hands clean, but who are calling the shots and never go to jail! Stop! Stop!”

Well, I should say that, and maybe I should stop. Then he starts talking about the smoke from the sugar cane fields and the bridge over the Bayou Teche, and the big Evangeline oak in St. Martinsville, and I am a goner. I’m sucked in, I’m hooked.

I detest the violence and the images. I keep coming back because James Lee Burke has some important things to say.

I’d love to have him to dinner. I’d love for him and our son to have a chance to talk about Law Enforcement. Here is what James Lee Burke has to say in Creole Bell:

There are three essential truths about law enforcement: Most crimes are not punished; most crimes are not solved through the use of forensic evidence; and informants product the lion’s share of information that puts the bad guys in a cage.

My son hates shows like CSI, and Law and Order, where the evidence convicts the criminals. He says it raises unreal expectations in juries, and makes it harder to get a conviction.

We watched a Violation of Parole hearing, or actually a series of hearings, where the judge asked each individual whose parole was about to be revoked what had happened when he or she was re-arrested. In each case, the parolee had done something stupid; drove a car with an expired license, drove to another state, was arrested driving drunk, etc. EVERY time. The judge made his point, I believe.

From Creole Belle:

But if Caruso was the pro Clete thought she was, she would avoid the mistakes and geographical settings common to the army of miscreants and dysfunctional individuals who constitute the criminal subculture of the United States. Few perpetrators are arrested during the commission of their crimes. They get pulled over for DWI, an expired license tag, or throwing litter on the street. They get busted in barroom beefs, prostitution stings, or fighting with a minimum-wage employee at a roach motel. Their addictions and compulsions govern their lives and place them in predictable circumstances and situations over and over, because they are incapable of changing who and what they are. Their level of stupidity is a source of humor at every stationhouse in the country. Unfortunately, the pros – high end safecrackers and jewel thieves and mobbed-up button men and second story creeps – are usually intelligent, pathological, skilled in what they do, middle class in their tastes and little different in dress and speech and behavior from the rest of us.

And then there are paragraphs like this that discuss the human experience, and have a far wider application than the book:

No one likes to be afraid. Fear is the enemy of love and faith and robs us of all serenity. It steals both our sleep and our sunrise and makes us treacherous and venal and dishonorble. It fills our glands with toxins and effaces our identity and gives flight to any vestige of self-respect. If you have ever been afraid, truly afraid, in a way that makes your hair soggy with sweat and turns your skin gray and fouls your blood and spiritually eviscerates you to the point where you cannot pray lest your prayers be a concesion to your conviction that you’re about to die, you know what I am talking about. This kind of fear has no remedy except motion, no matter what kind. Every person who has experienced war or natural ctastrophe or man-made calamity knows this. The adrenaline surge is so great that you can pick up an automobile with your bare hands, plunge through glass windows in flaming buildings, or attack an enemy whose numbers and weaponry are far superior to yours. No fear of self-injury is as great as the fear that turns your insides to gelatin and shrivels your soul to the size of an amoeba.

Last, but not least, this is what keeps me coming back to James Lee Burke, so much so that I buy the book almost as soon as it is released. James Lee Burke isn’t afraid to take on the big guys. He “gives voice to those who have no voices.” (Proverbs 31:8) His focus is always on the dignity of the common man, the dignity of hard work, done well, and on the dignity of doing unexpected kindnesses to those who have no expectation of kindness.

. . . All was not right with the world. Giant tentacles of oil that had the color and sheen of feces had spread all the way to Florida, and the argument that biodegradation would take care of the problem would be a hard sell with the locals. The photographs of pelicans and egrets and seagulls encased in sludge, their eyes barely visible, wounded the heart and caused parents to shield their children’s eyes. The testimony before congressional committees by Louisiana fisher-people whose way of life was being destroyed did not help matters, either. The oil company responsible for the blowout had spent an estimated $50 million trying to wipe their fingerprints off Louisiana’s wetlands. They hired black people and whites with hush-puppy accents to be their spokesmen on television. The company’s CEO’s tried their best to look ernest and humanitarian, even though the company’s safety record was the worst of any extractive industry doing business in the United States. They also had a way of chartering their offshore enterprises under the flag of countries like Panama. Their record of geopolitical intrigue went all the way back to the installation of the shah of Iran in the 1950’s. Their even bigger problem was an inability to shut their mouths.

They gave misleading information to the media and the government about the volume of oil escaping from the blown well, and made statements on worldwide television about wanting their lives back and the modest impact that millions of gallons of crude would have on the Gulf Coast. For the media, their tone-deafnessness was a gift from a divine hand. Central casting couild not have provided a more inept bunch of villains.

James Lee Burke has a voice, and he uses it. He could just cash in on his reputation as an Edgar Award winning author, but he uses his voice to speak out against injustice and corruption. He is a champion of the people. I’ve written several book reviews, and taken some trips just because I wanted to see James Lee Burke country; if you are interested in those, you can read them here.

I have a concern about this series, in that this book ended differently than all the others. So differently it made me seriously question whether Burke intends to continue writing about Dave Robicheaux or if Dave is about to hang up his shield and call it a day. He’s a guilty pleasure I am not yet ready to give up.

July 23, 2012 - Posted by | Adventure, Blogging, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Charity, Circle of Life and Death, Civility, Community, Cooking, Cultural, Detective/Mystery, Environment, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Friends & Friendship, Law and Order, Political Issues, Social Issues, Travel | , ,

5 Comments »

  1. I don’t like to read this series but I sure like to listen to them on audio books. The narrator has a way of speaking that really captures you.

    Comment by momcatwa | July 23, 2012 | Reply

  2. Who is the reader, Momcat?

    Comment by intlxpatr | July 23, 2012 | Reply

  3. Mark Hammer. I don’t know anything about him but i really like the way he does this series. It’s kind of a weird mumbling drawl he does that makes me think of weary cops who have seen it all and then some.

    Comment by momcatwa | July 24, 2012 | Reply

  4. LOL, you would know what weary cops who have seen it all would sound like.

    I Googled Narrator Mark Hammer and look at what I found:

    http://www.simplyaudiobooks.com/audio-books-narrator/Mark+Hammer/nrt/8997/

    His voice is described as “whiskey soaked” and gravelly.

    Comment by intlxpatr | July 24, 2012 | Reply

  5. Yes, that is a really good description.

    Comment by momcatwa | July 25, 2012 | Reply


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