July 2009

James Lee Burke

Life on the border
Interview by
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Two-time Edgar Award winner James Lee Burke’s  latest novel, Rain Gods, finds the crime master at the top of his game. Burke, best known as the author of numerous books starring his Southern sleuths Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland, has also crafted other works of fiction that transcend the mystery genre, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Lost Get-Back Boogie. Burke is that rare thriller writer who can combine gritty plotting with colorful characters and poetic descriptions of physical settings, while also managing to neatly circumscribe the action with a noirish sense of the sociopolitical American landscape.

Rain Gods is set into motion when the dead bodies of nine young Thai women—human “mules” in a heroin smuggling scheme—are discovered in a remote South Texas churchyard. Sheriff Hackberry Holland—Korean War vet, former ACLU lawyer, and reformed drinker and contrite ex-womanizer—takes on the investigation, which reaches into many sleazy worlds but mainly pits him against a formidable yet strangely compelling madman named Preacher Collins. The strong narrative offers a starkly realized Texas backdrop with occasional echoes of his beloved Louisiana, a healthy amount of violence and suspense, and a continuously intriguing whodunit feel that will satisfy his many fans. Burke took the time to answer a few questions about the new novel from his home in Montana.

Your protagonist, Sheriff Hackberry Holland, is 74, has chronic back pain, night terrors about his Korean War POW experience, has sworn off drink, and now doggedly chases bad guys in a wide-open—some might say godforsaken—Texas landscape. What inspired you to develop this character, and can we expect to see him as the star of future novels?
Hack first appears in my work in three short stories contained in the collection titled The Convict. He is also the narrator of my third published novel, Lay Down my Sword and Shield. I think he's one of most intriguing characters I have written about, and I suspect I will be writing more about him as well as the rest of the Holland family.

In the course of Rain Gods, it is suggested that Holland and his nemesis, Preacher Collins, are “two sides of the same coin.” Does either one bear any resemblance to the coin that is James Lee Burke?
My own life is an enormous yawn. I think that's the reason I'm often invited to speak before groups of insomniacs.

Two current events are referenced in Rain Gods that seem crucial to the narrative and character development: Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. How do you think these events have affected American society?
The antagonist in the novel is a man known as Preacher Jack Collins. He's narcissistic, messianic, and convinced that he is the left hand of god. Needless to say, he's an extremely dangerous man. The novel has many symbolic overtones. We live in a time when men who in my view are absolutely ruthless have hijacked Christianity and used it for their own agenda.

With its South Texas setting, Rain Gods automatically conjures a strong sense of border politics and the issue of Hispanic immigration. Holland’s investigation directly—and often uneasily—involves the FBI and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Do you have a personal view on the immigration issue or any cynicism regarding the related work of federal agencies?
I think the people who serve in federal law enforcement do the best they can with what they have. I used to work for the United States Forest Service and the Job Corps, and I was always impressed with the quality of men and women who serve our government. I think the immigration difficulties we are experiencing today are directly related to our policies in Latin America, and also the wish on the part of many business interests to see an end to labor unions.

Your treatment of women in Rain Gods might be viewed as extreme. Juxtaposed with the dead Thai drug mules and strippers and escorts are tremendously strong figures like Holland’s devoted deputy Pam Tibbs, the defiantly combative strip-club owner’s wife Esther Dolan and the feisty country singer Vicki Gaddis.
The three women you mention are among the strongest characters in my work. The victims of the sex trade are not dealt with individually because they are not central players in the story. However, my experience has been, as Orwell once said, that people are always much better than we think they are, no matter what roles they occupy.

Deputy Tibbs, though young enough to be Holland’s daughter, has romantic designs on him. The age difference bothers him, yet we’re tantalizingly left hanging about exactly what happens between the two of them. Any hints about what happens between the two of them?
I never know what lies next in the story. I believe the story is written in the unconscious and the artist is its incremental discoverer rather than its creator. At least, that is the way it has always been for me.

Three of your previous books—In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Two for Texas and Heaven's Prisoners—have been adapted for the screen, and Rain Gods would also seem to be a logical candidate for a film. Have you been satisfied with Hollywood’s treatment of your work?
My experience with the film industry has always been a good one. In each instance, the creative people involved in the project treated the work with respect and did the best job they could. A writer shouldn't ask for more.

You’ve been referred to as “a Faulkner of crime writing.” How do you feel about that designation? And, since you began your career as a writer of “serious” fiction, has your work in the crime genre fulfilled your literary ambitions?
The comparison with William Faulker is very complimentary, but Faulkner's work is on a level with the work of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Homer and Keats. The only change that has taken place in my work is the fact that with the writing of The Neon Rain, some of my novels were narrated by a police officer, namely Dave Robicheaux. The themes, the settings, the type of people I write about are the same as the ones we encounter in my first novel, Half of Paradise.

Rain Gods is chock-full of details on myriad topics—the Korean War, the drug trade, seedy night clubs, firearms, federal law enforcement, all manner of Texas geography and flora and fauna, etc. How much research do you do, or is it all second nature by now?
I do little if any research. Most of the people I write about are composites of people I have known. Hemingway once said that once the author knows his characters, he can place them in any setting or era he wishes.

Holland’s antagonists in Rain Gods are a motley bunch of lowlifes, all fit for a Tarantino film. Have you known many people like this in the course of your life?
I was a social worker in California and handled the cases of many parolees and mental patients, some of whom were among the most interesting people I have ever known. I also made recordings of the inmates in the work camps and what was called "the block" at Angola Penitentiary in 1961. I was occasionally a police reporter and worked a bit in the oil patch, and lived in an urban slum and the poorest part of the southern mountains. I may have had few other talents, but I was always a good listener. The great stories are in the air, all around us, everyday, no matter where we're located. All we have to do is listen.

What the heck is creosote?
It's a viscous oil produced by the creosote bush. It's often used to treat wood, particularly railroad ties.

You were born in Houston but have a home in Louisiana, which one would assume is your spiritual literary base given your many Robicheaux novels. Still, you’ve written about Texas in the Holland stories. Which locale do you prefer to bring to life in fiction, and is there another Robicheaux tale on the horizon?
To me, the South and the American West represent the entirety of our experience as a nation, for good or bad. The challenge for the artist is to see the larger story in its smallest component, like coming to know a beach through a grain of sand. I'm writing another novel narrated by Dave Robicheaux now. I hope to write many more stories before I catch the train. In fact, when the latter event occurs, I'm taking my notebook and pen with me.


Read all our reviews featuring the novels of James Lee Burke.

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Rain Gods

Rain Gods

By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781439128244

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