OUTLAWS AND BIG BUSINESS, THE ENDURING NATURE OF THE WILD WEST AND THE FRONTIER IN THE NOVELS OF JAMES LEE BURKE
In early American literature, the frontier assumed a key importance as both a motif of the early pioneering days of a new country and a means of exploring law and morality. From Fenimore Cooper to Melville, with his use of the microcosm of early American society in the Pequod and Ahab’s mad quest on the frontier of the oceans, from Mark Twain to Cormac McCarthy, whose use of the theme shows that America is still anchored to the Wild West, the frontier features again and again in various settings.
One thing that is prevalent is the fact that the idea of the frontier and the Virgin Land lingers in the American psyche like a facet of the great American Dream; an idea of a pure land corrupted by the lawless, of limitless possibilities in a nation now eroded by crime and industrial corruption. As such it is often used to explore the macrocosmic American situation both on a cultural and a political level. It is a means of establishing and exploring contemporary morality, and a way of dramatizing an eroding heroism that is historically tenuous, to say the least. Given the global responsibilities of America and its record in foreign policy, the mere notion of the frontier allows an author to either endorse the prevailing cultural program or to subvert it by exposing it as a paradigm. Historical memory and cultural heritage is a key to a contemporary novelist who has done much to shed the hypocritical skin of a vacuous literary superiority towards crime fiction, by showing just how well he can write and why crime fiction is important.
In the novels of James Lee Burke, the frontier operates on two main levels: first, as a means of dramatizing law and crime. And second, as a means of exploring what the author sees as an ongoing violation of areas of natural beauty and purity, of the remaining Virgin Land locked in the heart of Montana, a favored setting for his novels. Burke himself lives in Missoula, Montana. Many of his novels are set in New Iberia, Louisiana, mainly the Dave Robicheaux novels.
Burke frequently places his characters in an area of natural beauty that is being polluted by oil giants, who pick deserted rural areas near to poor communities in order to dump toxic chemicals. His novels often set the working class man against the multinationals in a revenge tragedy that involves sustained humiliation and abuse of the protagonist by the wealthy and connected, thus invoking the satisfaction of revenge.
They also look at the blurred line between law and crime, and in this way offer a reinterpretation of the morally acceptable version of justice in the United States. Burke is known as a crime writer, yet his fictions are far more complex than that. Critics have acknowledged his style is as literary the best of the non-genre writers and Burke himself often strays from genre.
He views himself as a historical novelist and that is because his novels look at the ways criminality develops in a society and its cultural context. This is clearly juxtaposed next to the failings of a justice system that is overrun with bureaucracy and corruption. His use of four key areas in his fictions to exemplify this are: big business, the Vietnam war, the US economy, and organized crime and the criminal justice system as well as its failings and corruption. Thematically Burke explores an America run by criminal syndicates and multinationals. He shows that the mob, criminal gangs, police corruption and the Ku Klux Klan have a lot of muscle in the way America is run and challenging the power system is an impossibility and an act that may well get you killed. His novels illustrate the global habits of America at home, reflecting a wider sense of corruption and embodying Kissinger’s comment that ‘America does not have friends but interests.’
Burke uses the memories of his first person narrators, Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland and the third person narratives of Hackberry Holland to build a complex picture of America’s past and present, from the pioneers to the modern era. He also dramatizes US cultural heritage through its economic and political interests and uses the modern day to shed light on the past. While the frontier may exist primarily in a geographical sense in his fictions, particularly those set in Montana, he also uses it to illustrate the treatment of the native American Indians. In the Robicheaux novels, set in Louisiana, he explores the history of the French settlers. We’ll focus on four key novels:
HEAVEN’S PRISONERS, a Robicheaux novel.
CIMARRON ROSE, a Billy Bob Holland novel.
WHITE DOVES AT MORNING a standalone novel about the Civil War.
WAYFARING STRANGER, a Weldon Holland novel.
In looking at these novels, and how he uses the frontier in them and how he portrays crime, we see how it forms part of his view of American history and the United States today, and how modern America has its roots deep in a past that never shed its inherent lawlessness.
When asked why he writes about Montana and Louisiana in an interview, Burke said:
‘They’re both great places to write about, because their story — the microcosm — really reflects a much larger population, really reflects national issues. As Dave Robicheaux says, wars are fought in places nobody cares about. And the national issues that are probably most critical, most important, the war over them is being waged in places like Montana and Louisiana. And those issues are resources, energies and extracted industries. That’s what it’s all about. From Iraq to Afghanistan to the offshore oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico, that’s what it’s all about — energy. There’s no question about the flag we’re operating under today — it’s energy. A massive need for it. You see, in Montana, extracted industries are trying to get into wilderness areas. That’s the big issue. They’re trying to drill right now on the edges of Glacier National Park. If they get in there, say good-bye to it, man, it’s gone. No matter what they say, it’s gone. It’s like the discovery of gold by [General George Armstrong] Custer’s expedition of 1873. The dye was cast as soon as gold was discovered on Indian lands.’ *1
He clearly ties in the ongoing pillage of the land to what was being done at the start. His picture of America is both complex and profound, his understanding of its cultural mechanisms acute. As Burke himself has said:
‘America is the most creative place on earth because of the dynamic mix of ethnicity and cultural backgrounds, and the tensions those create. Tension is always created by opposition. Standardization is the enemy of invention.’ *2
Burke’s second Robicheaux novel, HEAVEN’S PRISONERS, 1988, (3) recounts Robicheaux’s experiences as he tries to bring a criminal syndicate to justice on his own. Justice and the lack of in the legal system is a key theme in Burke and Robicheaux, who filters our perceptions, and frequently reflects on the lack of justice he experiences as a police officer. The novel begins with Robicheaux rescuing a child, Alafair, the girl he adopts, from a plane wreck. There are people who want to stop Robicheaux. He is confronted with an elaborate network of criminality and corruption. Robicheaux is a complex man, a bad guy cop hero. In many ways, he exists as a Noir figure in a lawless land propped up by a justice system he has lost faith in. His life is a precarious balance of his exacting morality as a father and husband and the ambiguous world he inhabits as a cop, as if he inhabits a tenuous world of fractured ethics.
It is clear the fracture occurred in Vietnam and is ongoing in his job. Burke is careful to show what divides Robicheaux from the hard line criminals and it is his adherence to an ethic. The bad guy features in much frontier literature and Robicheaux may be termed a bad guy, but he is the kind of bad guy who is fighting for moral sanity while in the grips of lacerating trauma, and witnessing not only the evisceration of his society by the mob, but also the assassination of his wife Annie by hit men who leave him with an exacting awareness of his own lack of judgement in bringing them to his home because of his own extreme measures. This is an illustration of the moral complexity of Burke’s fictions. He also shows that the bad guy may well be on the right side in a corrupt world. The frontier operates in the novel in the lines Robicheaux crosses as a cop, in the way the failure of the police system demands that he step a little closer to crime. I believe Noir fiction describes a world of moral compromise.
When writing Noir fiction myself, I often view it as the genre of the morally compromised. Of men and women who are not necessarily criminals, but who are lured across line into crime. And that is what Robicheaux is, morally compromised by a situation that sheds the easy assurances of modern America, and hands him back the broken pieces, all the fragments of a questionable reality that are embedded in the skin of the Great American Dream. It is as if throughout the novel, Robicheaux is struggling to contain a lawlessness that is covered up.
There is a real taste of the Wild West in the novel, of the inherent violence of America, be it on the home front or abroad in wars that are entrenched in economic motivation and redesigned in the endless Hollywood replays. Robicheaux is a good cop and he is also capable of extreme violence, as the following passage illustrates clearly. When Robicheaux walks into a bar and finds one of the men who has savagely beaten him as part of the attempted block on his investigation, he crosses the line in a key scene that shows what kind of bad guy he is:
‘Most people think of violence as an abstraction. It never is. It’s always ugly, it always demeans and dehumanizes, it always shocks and repels and leaves the witnesses to it sick and shaken. It’s meant to do all these things.
I held the pool cue by its tapered end with both hands and whipped it sideways through the air as I would a baseball bat, with the same force and energy and snap of the wrists, and broke the weighted end across his left eye and the bridge of his nose. I felt the wood knock into bone, saw the skin split, saw the green eye almost come out of its socket, heard him clatter against the bar and go down on the brass rail with his hands cupped to his nose and the blood roaring between his fingers.
He pulled his knees up to his chin in the litter of cigarette butts and peanut shells. He couldn’t talk and instead trembled all over. The bar was absolutely silent. The bartender, the hookers, the oilfield workers in their hardhats, the waitresses in their pink shorts and cut-off black blouses, the rockabilly musicians, the half-dressed mulatto stripper on the dance floor, all stood like statutes in the floating layers of cigarette smoke.
I heard someone dial a telephone as I walked out into the night air.’ *4
Robicheaux also shows that the bad guy may well be on the right side in a corrupt world. Burke shows again and again that often you have to cross a line to combat extreme criminality. His fictions show both the moral complexity of the justice system and the business interests that have corrupted any sense of judicial purity. As such they offer a commentary on the economics behind law and its application. It is an economics of profit and the neglect of the poor, often in favor of the criminal. This is frontier crime fiction. It is fiction that shows the need to step outside the law to combat crime. It is a cop who is doing so here, and in this way Burke is not writing the usual redemptive crime fiction. He is showing certain areas of America contain the lawlessness of the Wild West.
CIMARRON ROSE, 1997, (5) features Billy Bob Holland, former Texas ranger, attorney and great-grandson of a gunslinger and saddle preacher, and the novel takes a hard look at the inheritance of the Wild West in Texas. Billy Bob is confronted with a situation he has to take an extreme and at times lawless approach to. Here is a synopsis:
Lucas Smothers, nineteen and from the wrong side of town, is arrested and charged with the rape and murder of a young girl. Billy Bob is convinced of Lucas’s innocence, but proving it – in a small Texas town riven by prejudice and corruption – is going to be even more difficult than Billy Bob suspected.
Incarcerated in the local lock-up, Lucas overhears gruesome tales of serial murder from a neighboring cell, stories that make him a potential danger to the maniac released on a technicality. When that maniac hooks up with the wayward young man who appears to have set up Smothers for the rape charge, it looks very much like Lucas and Billy Bob might be potential corpses themselves.
This is a novel with the spirit of the Wild West deep in its veins. There is an ongoing sense of the frontier, both in a literal sense and a metaphorical one, Burke uses the frontier as a means of exploring moral and physical limits, as a geographical image as well as a way of exploring dramatically how far a man may go. Inheritance is a key part of the novel. As Billy Bob reminisces at the beginning of the novel:
‘My grandfather and his father were both violent men. Their eyes were possessed of a peculiar unfocused light that soldiers have called the thousand-yard stare, and the ghosts of the men they had killed visited them at times in their sleep and stood in attendance by their deathbeds. When I was a young police officer in Houston, I swore their legacy would never be mine.’ *6
Despite this Billy Bob is capable of extreme violence and enacts it in the novel in a context that demands it is justified. His refusal to accept his legacy is in many ways an echo of the inability of America as a nation to shrug off its violent past, from the genocide of the native American Red Indians to Vietnam and after. Only Hollywood offers consoling words, or images. It is an industry of appeasement. It is also a means of social engineering, and an entertainment placebo that enjoys success because there is so much guilt.
What Burke conveys through his fictions is a microcosmic sense of a wider American unease, and it is an unease with its past and the burden of its ongoing identity as a nation. Burke’s protagonists struggle with their identities as they face extreme situations. They are situations that challenge their notions of what America is and what it has become. As part of Burke’s historicization of his character, there are passages in CIMARRON ROSE where Billy Bob reads from the journal of his great-grandfather as a sort of hunt for his legacy; an archaeological dig into his own roots and by extension into those of many Americans. And it is clear from this passage, that contrasts the move towards Christianity with the history of violence, that the need to define his moral position is wrapped up in identity, as was that of Sam Morgan Holland’s, who wrote in his journal about a group of outlaws:
‘July 27, 1891.
I had thought I had put my violent ways behind me. But just as my loins yearned for the nocturnal caress of the Rose of Cimarron, my palm wished to curve around the hardness of my Navy .36. I purely hate these men, God forgive me for my words, but they make me ashamed to be a member of the white race and give me dreams about the old life and the men whose faces lighted with gunfire while people watched from the balconies of salons and brothels….
Maybe I hate them because the nature of their abode and of their fornication is the only difference between us. This question has troubled me sorely and I raised it to Jennie. She did not reply and went out to the wood stove in back and began frying meat for our breakfast. She was not hardly dressed and in the early light her young body looked like that of a savage. The sight of her filled me with a passion that I could not contain, that even in the cool air of our bedroom made her palms damp with my sweat.
I am fifty years old and fear I do not know who I am.’ *7
Billy Bob has to tackle the law to ensure justice for a young man in a novel that explores the inefficiency of law in a society that lives in the inheritance of the Wild West. Throughout the novel he battles with his legacy of a violent past, and it is a battle not only with his own identity and morality but with modern America as it tries to shed its skin. But it seems too often when faced with lawlessness extreme measures are required. It is there in the journal of his great-grandfather who articulates his own struggle:
‘ August 30, 1891.
The preacher who ordained me had been branded in the face with burning horse shoes. He said all good things come to the righteous and the just. His words rose like snow flakes from the heat that had been seared into his skin. But today his words ring hollow on my ears….
It is hard for me to think of myself as a fugitive from the law. The idea of it makes my hands sting as though bitten by bees…. At Little Round Top I watched soldiers, boys, really, die in the V of my musket sight…. I have to wipe the seat off my palms onto my britches and not think the thoughts I am thinking.’ *8
Again, the Wild West is there, on the frontier, challenging law and order, and driving Billy Bob to behave like his ancestors. What happens in the novel is an evisceration of the legal system by a court scene that shows both its injustice and the courage of Bill Bob as he is faced with an almost impenetrable layer of corruption that will see an innocent man sent to prison if he does not act effectively. He tackles it in a personal way that exposes him both personally and professionally but ensures the case is won and the innocent are protected. Throughout the novel Bill Bob tries to handle things by just and lawful means and is pulled into his ancestral violence by the need for violent action in a predatory world.
WHITE DOVES AT MORNING, 2002, (9) is a standalone novel about the Civil War, and it is set in Louisiana. Central to this brooding saga are hot-headed young idealist Willie Burke, son of a boarding-house owner, and a beautiful slave girl named Flower Jamison. She is the illegitimate daughter of Ira Jamison, the callous owner of the infamous Angola Plantation. Flower’s mother was murdered by a brutal overseer, Rufus Atkins, just after she gave birth, and Rufus has been a malevolent presence in Flower’s life ever since. Secretly taught to read and write by Willie Burke, she now does laundry for the town brothel. Befriended by Abigail Dowling, a young Yankee abolitionist who is helping slaves escape the South, Flower clings to the hope that Jamison will acknowledge her as his daughter; meanwhile, Jamison has his eye on Abigail. The war gets into full swing, and Willie loses his best friend at Shiloh because of Jamison’s cowardly dereliction. Wounded and left to die, Willie is saved by Abigail, who brings him home and nurses him back to health. Against her protests, he attempts to return to battle but is taken captive and – the war now over- escapes to confront racist vigilantes intent on shutting down Flower’s school for ex-slaves.
There is a lot of history packed into this novel that confronts the past and its enduring presence in America today. Flower is in many ways central to the novel and its exploration of racism and abolitionism. Burke’s description of the War conjures up the frontier, and shows the desire prevalent in the Southerners for a return to Wild West values. These values are deeply embedded in the American psyche, particularly the Southern states. While the novel charts the progress towards an emancipation that is both racial and female, for Flowers it also shows the opposition that will be ongoing to the freedom that abolitionism earned, an opposition that is still alive today in the Unites States. No sooner than the War was lost by the South was The Knights of the White Camellia formed. It was associated with the Ku Klux Klan. It was a means of ensuring the War continued. As the murder of black prostitute Carrie LaRose in the novel shows:
‘When a black man came to work at the bordello in the morning, he found the back door open and Carrie LaRose kneeling by the side of her bed, the pillow that had been used to suffocate her still covering her head. A white camellia lay on the floor.’ *10
This historical novel shows clearly that America today can’t shake off that past, as it bears ongoing racism in the continuing existence of the Klan. The images we see on TV of white cops emptying round after round into an unarmed black motorist’s head remind us. It is there in the Watts riots in LA in 1965. It is there in the beating of Rodney King. Burke writes at the end of the novel:
‘The White League and the Knights of the White Camellia continued to terrorize black voters throughout the Reconstruction era and were instrumental in the bloody 1874 takeover of New Orleans, which they occupied for three days, before they were driven out of the city by Union forces partially under the command of the ex-Confederate general, James Longstreet.’ *11
In this passage Burke mentions The White League, an American white supremacist paramilitary terrorist organization started in 1874 to turn Republicans out of office and intimidate freedmen from voting and political organizing. The organization is also linked to the Klan. The reason the members of the Klan wear white is that they are meant to look like the ghosts of the Union soldiers. It is clear from the novel that Burke’s view is that the racial history in America is still there. Peace in America remains precariously balanced on the tension between the South and the rest of the Unites States, and the frontier is still there. The Civil War saw beliefs and prejudice fought out on the edge of it, and the ongoing legacy of the War remains embedded deep in American culture, a reminder that the days of the Wild West have not yet faded, and their challenge to law and order remains.
WAYFARING STRANGER, 2014, *12 exemplifies the endurance of the frontier, moving from the folk heroism of Bonnie and Clyde, to the second World War and the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in the name of racial purification and world domination, to a post-War America blighted by the self-serving monopolistic greed of multinational companies propped up by ideologies that while economically focused bear totalitarian traits. The protagonist, Weldon Holland, is fighting a hierarchy involving wealth and connection. Weldon Holland seeks retribution from those who use others to harm him or incarcerate his wife, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, in an insane asylum, and he needs the help of the hedonistic son of the very man bent on destroying him. Faced with a structure that is both impenetrable and limitlessly wealthy the working man, be it Robicheaux or Holland, is left only with his own resources and morality. Holland is an unlikely bad guy, a moral man who uses the soldier’s ethic to justify his ends.
Yet besides Robicheaux and characters like Weldon Holland in the Burke canon, there is another type of bad guy and one who highlights his Manichean world with great chiaroscuro effect. One of the more corrupt characters in WAYFARING STRANGER is the cop Slakely, an anti-Semite who assaults Holland’s Jewish wife. While the narrative tells the story of the working man fighting the business giants, it also dramatizes and explores American history and interpretations of American history by the media and Hollywood, which features heavily in the novel as both a corrupt business and a creator of soothing propaganda. Burke is looking at the fictions that are told to the US citizens as mythologies and the purpose they serve, to appease colonial guilt.
The opening of the novel sets the scene and gives the violent history of the family of the narrator, Weldon Holland:
‘As a lawman, Grandfather had gone up against the likes of Bill Dalton and John Wesley Hardin, and in 1916, with a group of rogue Texas Rangers, he had helped ambush a train loaded with Pancho Villa’s soldiers.’ *13
Protecting the country from invasion, this passage refers to a key moment in American history and Burke places his characters firmly inside it. In many ways the novel is about racism and the hatred that is prevalent in parts of America. It is also about the oil industry and its relation to the US economy. While Weldon Holland fights corruption, he observes of Slakely that:
‘It’s my belief that lust, greed, and violence die hard in all of us, whether we’re Semites or Gentiles or pagans, river-baptised, born again, or redeemed by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. But there’s another group in our midst. I believe some are born with the scales and the tailed spine of the four-footed reptilian creature with which we share a common gene pool. I never bore an animus toward the average German soldier; I did, however, toward the Waffen SS, and I was glad I had killed as many of them as I possibly could. I didn’t think Slakely had twin lightning bolts tattooed under his armpit, but if he had, I’m sure he would have worn them with pride.’ *14
This is not a world of resolutions, but one of uncertainty and ongoing corruption. The stark lines Burke draws serve to exemplify both the lack of justice in society and the reasons for it. The personal reasons for criminal pathology may lie in economic deprivation or, as so often in Burke, the DNA, offering an impasse to the moralists and analysts of human motivation. The legal pathologies are represented fiercely through his ongoing portrait of police corruption and involvement with local mobsters, once again bringing it round to the money.
Throughout the novel there is the sense of the frontier, whether it is as Weldon tries to set up his own business in the oil industry or in his reminisces of the past, or his experience of how the corrupt violate moral frontiers, or of how Hollywood uses and reinterprets American history. While there are passages describing the beauty of a land that may still be called virgin, there is more of the sense of the fracture of the moral frontier.
When Weldon’s business becomes a threat, the wealthy and connected family of competing oil giants who have tried unsuccessfully to launch a hostile takeover bid against Weldon and his business partner start another kind of war, one that involves espionage and blackmail, targeting his marriage. They send doctored shots of his partner’s unfaithful wife juxtaposed to Weldon in a fictional context, then they send him a film of his wife:
‘The footage was in black and white and set in a large room with three beds in it. At first the lens was partially blocked by a man who had a head like a white bowling ball and a thick neck spiked with pig bristles. He wore suspenders and jackboots and was drinking from a stein and eating a sausage, his porcine face split with a grin, his tombstone teeth shiny under a light bulb suspended from the ceiling. Two naked young women were sitting side by side on the edge of a bed, their faces turned from the camera. One had her arm around the waist of the other.
An SS colonel walked past the lens, his shoulders erect, a cigarette held in front of him, the way a European gentleman would smoke.
…Then we saw another woman appear on the screen. She was wearing a dress that went almost to her ankles, and a Spanish blouse, and pearls around her neck, and a white rose in her hair. I felt as though a sliver of ice had been pushed into my heart.
…I could hardly bear to look at the screen. Rosita was undressing directly in front of the camera; then she and the SS colonel re-created all the fantasies that a perverse and misogynistic and depraved sex addict was capable of imagining. The film lasted nineteen minutes.
…When I closed my eyes, I saw a snowfield under a blazing moon and a primeval forest that was dark and green and pure and smelled of colossal trees reaching into the clouds, the way the earth probably smelled before the first man despoiled it with his scat.’ *15
The men who are intent on destroying him have used a victim of the Nazi camps, his wife Rosita, to attack him. They have used victim-hood as a weapon. That is an example of the fractured frontier in the novel, the moral frontier that has vanished at the top of the ladder in Hollywood and the oil giants that prop up the economy. Rosita went through with it because she was told the colonel would spare her family. Such are the deep trade-offs of a totalitarianism that a civilized world fails to understand. With an easily inherited morality and an all too keen sense of judgement, the citizens of the free world do not see the shadow of authoritarianism within their society, and they are fed by the media which is owned by the interests which destroy lives like Weldon’s. But Weldon does not let them destroy his life or his marriage, he tries to understand what happened to Rosita. It seems the racism that drove the Nazis is alive and well in America.
Burke shows the dark side to America, he exposes the hollowness and corruption inside the Great American Dream, perhaps better than anyone since F. Scott Fitzgerald. Despite this there is a certain sense of cauterizing a wound he may be inflicting to the American psyche at the end of the novel:
‘These events all took place in another era. In spite of the war, the country was still innocent about its potential, in the way that a child who does not know his strength can be both innocent and destructive…. Hollywood belonged to all of us. If we doubted that paradoxical vision of ourselves, the radio reassured us nightly that we were part of an extended community where everyone lived next door to movie stars.’ *16
Burke portrays bad guys in a variety of ways. In his Robicheaux series we have the pairing of two lawless cops, Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell. And Purcell is an extreme example of the bad guy who is on the right side of the law. Just. Their partnership shows them tackling criminals with an extreme degree of criminality. They embody Carl Jung’s theory that great detectives have strong criminal shadows. And they live in a world peopled by bad guys. It is a Manichean world in which good and bad slug it out in seedy locations while the offender goes unpunished and revenge is lawless justice. It is interesting to examine what characteristics the bad guys have and what purpose they serve dramatically. They function well in a predatory world. These are crime fictions dealing with the hard edge of crime. They are not cozies. They are realistic portraits of how criminals behave. And they depict, realistically, the failure of justice. With Burke, the bad guy serves to show what cops need to do to catch criminals.
Burke has written twenty Robicheaux novels, and many of them include the pairing of him with his partner Clete Purcell. Both are good examples of the contemporary bad guy, with Purcell being the more consistent example. He crosses the line in his hunt for criminals, while the criminals succeed in abusing, murdering, violating the law and exploiting the legal system for long enough to justify his actions in the mind of the reader. That is one of the dramatic purposes the bad guy serves.
In different novels, Purcell fills the Cadillac of a New Orleans mobster with cement, pours Draino down a criminal’s throat, plunges a gangster head first into a toilet bowl, takes a hit out on a mobster, and beats another one and his body guard up at a petrol station and pours petrol over them while whipping his Zippo lighter alight only to be stopped dropping the flame on them by his partner Robicheaux. He abuses his liver with vodka at breakfast, falls for the wrong woman every time, wakes with a box of snakes in his head and memories of Vietnam that leave him craving a sweating Jax at dawn. As Purcell says of himself, ‘On a quiet day I can hear my liver rotting.’ He inhabits a Manichean world, one of no easy compromise.
Both Robicheaux and Purcell are Vietnam veterans and their shared experience of the war is linked in many ways to Burke’s vision of the frontier in US literature. They are fighting for law on the edge of legal disorder, and their situation is a reworking of the Virgin land of Fenimore Cooper. Burke’s novels are peopled by the morally compromised, the recidivists and low-lifes who fill America’s prisons. Predation runs deep and imbues the legal system and the criminal underworld it attempts to police. What the fictions I am discussing show is that the criminal food chain utilizes the inbuilt vulnerabilities of social conditioning. They also show that the bad guy is not a moral straightforward. He raises questions about our moral certainties and about bending the rules, or breaking the law for reasons the narratives he inhabits justify. Burke sets bad guy cops against the bad guy criminals in a series of fictions that show the blurred line between law and crime.
1. January Magazine, 2006, http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/jlburke.html
2. Esquire Magazine, December 30, 2012 http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/interviews/a17687/james-lee-burke-interview-0113/
3. James Lee Burke, HEAVEN’S PRISONERS, 1988, Phoenix.
4. Ibid P.135.
5. James Lee Burke, CIMARRON ROSE, 1997. Phoenix.
6. Ibid. P.2.
7. Ibid. Pp 108-109.
8. Ibid. Pp 258-259.
9. James Lee Burke, WHITE DOVES AT MORNING, 2002, Phoenix.
- Ibid. P.281.
11. Ibid. P.344.
12. James Lee Burke, WAYFARING STRANGER, Simon & Schuster, 2014.
13. Ibid. Pp 1-2.
14. Ibid. P 297.
15. Ibid. Pp. 212-213.
16. Ibid. P. 433.
17. Richard Godwin, ONE LOST SUMMER, Black Jackal Books Ltd, 2013.
Richard Godwin is a critically acclaimed author and you can find out more about him at his website www.richardgodwin.net , where you can read a full list of his works, and where you can also read his Chin Wags At The Slaughterhouse, his highly popular and unusual interviews with other authors.