Author of the Month

Name: James Lee Burke

First Novel: Half of Paradise

Most Recent Book: Swan Peak

'... cuts deep into the underbelly of the human psyche and display it in all its many guises.'

In the 17th novel of this deservedly successful series, New Iberia Parish detective Dave Robicheaux has accepted an invitation to recover from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina on a ranch in western Montana. His wife, Molly, and sidekick, Clete Purcell, tag along for R&R among the pine trees and trout rivers.

However, a cop is never truly off duty and within days of their arrival in Montana, Dave’s career catches up with them. Two young college students are found tortured and murdered in the hills behind the ranch where Robicheaux and Purcell are staying. Then a Hollywood producer making a film nearby, and his companion, are shot and burned at a highway rest stop

Crime investigations - or life for that matter - are never simple where Dave and Clete are concerned. Clete Purcell runs up against two thugs who work for the obscenely wealthy Ridley Wellstone, who is financing a charismatic ministry fronted by his beautiful and talented wife. Running alongside this plot thread is the story of Jimmy Dale Greenwood, a young man sexually abused by a prison guard during a two-year prison sentence. He escaped by sticking a homemade shank in his abuser, who, now almost recovered from his wounds, has tracked him to Montana - intent on the cruelest revenge...

As these various plot threads unfold, merge and explode in violence, Robicheaux and Purcel are up to their chins in all the action.

James Lee Burke is often said to be a writer’s writer and as you weave your way through this book you will understand why. His ability to create fascinating characters and convey atmosphere through prose both lyrical and immediate is on full display among the mountains of Montana. Indeed, the vast skyline and perfection of nature is used as an effective counterpoint to the many and varied flaws of the petty and tormented human beings who inhabit this planet.

Burke has the talent to work under the skin of his characters. He cuts deep into the underbelly of the human psyche and display it in all its many guises. Whether that be those individuals who succumb to the power and pulse of everyday evil or those struggling to make sense of their lives and make peace with their lot. As ever, there is darkness in Robicheaux’s world, but this book ends on a surprisingly warming, redemptive note.

The various plot lines are expertly handled and converge in a tense climax that will have you reading on into the wee small hours. And then next morning, you’ll be seen cradling the book with one hand, stroking the cover with the other, regretting that uncontrollable impulse to finish it.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
I try not to think of writing or literature in terms of genre. Categorical designations and art, I think don’t go well in the same basket.
2) What type of crime or thriller novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I think James M. Cain was a genuine crime novelist as well as artist. However, no one considers Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx crime writers, nor to they ever refer to Robert Stone as one, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, for that matter. Why? You got me?
3) In Swan Peak the action has moved from Iberia Parish to Montana. What prompted the shift in scenery?
Actually the Dave Robicheaux series travels all over the map and with great regularity – Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Montana, Colorado, and Mexico. For some unexplained reason, no one ever seems to notice.
4) In this latest book Clete Purcel continues to make a fool of himself when it comes to the opposite sex. Is he ever going to get his act together?
As someone more than intelligent than I once said, how does one know when he’s an old fool? Answer: When he starts acting like an old fool. However, I don’t think is true of Clete.
5) How much longer do you feel Dave and Clete can continue to kick criminal butt?
I think the books are complex than that. At least they’re intended to be.
6) In an article online dated 2004 you were quoted as saying that you are still contemplating what makes a good book. Your fans would answer that you’ve had this down from day one... What are the elements you strive to include in your novels?
I try to tell a good story in an engaging fashion, and I try to write it in a way that no one else would. To the extent I’ve been successful is probably up for debate. But once I feel I have written a story or book as well as I can, I never have to look back upon it with regret, regardless of the work’s success or lack of it.
7) Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “When writing about a frog, inhabit your frog-ness.” Reading your books one gets a sense that you really know your characters, how do you get into their heads so effectively? And do they give you nightmares?
I think both the characters and the story live in the unconscious. I have always thought of my work as a matter of incremental discovery rather than one of creativity.
8) Ian Rankin says crime fiction fascinates because it gives us a way of exploring a few of the complications of death and enjoying ourselves while we do it – so why do you think we enjoy reading about the darker side of humanity?
The darker side of humanity is a matter of definition. The duty of the artist is to tell the truth. That’s why in a dictatorship of any persuasion the artists and writers are the first sent to the wall. Richard Nixon was no friend of the arts, and neither is the present bunch running things here. The real dark side, in my opinion, is often found in those whom we consider the most normal in our midst.
9) Your 4th novel The Lost Get Back Boogie was famously rejected 111 times (and later nominated for a Pulitzer). What was the driving force that made you submit it to a publisher that one last time?
Pearl, my wife, told me to send it and “The Convict” to Louisiana State University Press. What was the result? I was back in hardback print after thirteen years. What is the lesson? One should listen to his wife more often.
10) Your fans over here would love the chance to meet you. Do you have any plans to visit the UK?
I’d love to come back to the U.K. Maybe it won’t be too long. I am a great admirer of the English people.
11) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
Regarding my own work, I think “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead” contains the most interesting plotline. Perhaps Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” contains the most interesting and unusual plotline in American writing.
12) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime or thriller novel?
I think perhaps “L.A. Confidential” is the best adaptation of a crime novel in Hollywood history. It’s an incredible film, and of course the book on which it drew is a fine work, too.
13) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction or thriller fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why
I think the best writers working today are probably Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx and Ron Hansen. Michael Connelly and Steve Yarbrough are very good writers, also. One of the great talents of my generation is Rick Demarinis. His novel “The Year of the Zinc Penny” is a masterpiece.
14) What is your favourite crime/thriller read of all time?
I’d say “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”