There are many readers who regard James Lee Burke as the finest novelist of our time, and with two Edgars to his credit, he is certainly one of the giants in mystery fiction.
Burke has definite ties to Kansas as he taught at Wichita State University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He also has a daughter who lives in Wichita.
So it comes, as no surprise there is a Kansas connection in his most recent novel “Light of the World.”
As is in the other Dave Robicheaux novels, Robicheaux is teamed with Clete Purcel, his former partner when both were detectives in New Orleans.
They, along with Dave’s wife and daughter and Clete’s recently found daughter, are on vacation in Montana when a series of events unfold that reek of evil. Evil that began with a Kansas serial killer, Asa Surrette, a character modeled in many respects after notorious BTK killer, Dennis Rader.
Rader gets mentioned in the novel for his heinous crimes, but the fictional Surrette stinks of corruption deep within his soul and is even more loathsome than Rader.
Robicheaux’s daughter, Alafair, had interviewed Surrette in prison and after he escapes from custody during the wreck of a prison van, he goes to Montana where he pursues her while committing several vicious murders.
As always, Burke’s characters and plot are well drawn and skillfully developed.
But what sets Burke apart from many of the other great writers of our day is the beauty of his wordsmithing.
Burke’s descriptions are rich and his style reflects writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner whom Burke has said were influences.
It isn’t a stretch to say Burke’s friend John Neihardt, who was a poet in residence at the University of Missouri when Burke studied there, had an impact on Burke’s prose that often has the cadence of poetry.
When Burke provides description, there’s something of like a painting by Matisse that forms in your mind.
“A heavy fog had settled in the trees and on the north and south pastures, and I could hear Albert’s horses blowing inside it. I fell back asleep and dreamed I was in our home on Bayou Teche in New Iberia. It was late fall, and I could see the fog puffing in thick clouds out of the Cyprus and live oaks and pecan trees and flooded bamboo and elephant ears that grew along the banks.
“Then I saw myself walking in the mist to the Drawbridge at Burke Street and gazing at the long band of amber light that ran down the center of the bayou, all the way to the next drawbridge, the live oaks forming a tunnel that made me think somehow of a birth canal.”
It is impossible to read “Light of the World” without feeling there is a great deal of autobiographical material in it.
Albert Hollister, with whom Dave Robicheaux and his family are staying in Montana, is described as a retired professor of creative writing who once taught at Wichita State University.
As stated earlier, Burke once taught at WSU. Albert’s ranch is just outside of Lolo, Mont., where James Lee Burke has a home today.
“Few of his university colleagues ever knew that Albert had been a drifter and roustabout and migrant farmworker at age seventeen and had done six months spreading tar on a Florida road gang.
The greatest contradiction about Albert lay in the antithetical mix of his egalitarian social views and work-hardened physicality with his patrician features and Southern manners, as though his creator had decided to install the soul of Sidney Lanier in the body of a hod carrier.”
Readers who have met Burke could say much the same thing about him.
His web biography says, “Over the years he worked as a landman for Sinclair Oil Company, pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter, college English professor, social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles, clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service, and instructor in the U. S. Job Corps.”
Burke’s rich variety of experiences gives credibility to his writing about workers and the class conflicts he sees arising in a nation where money buys power and influence and the wealthy may feel exempt from moral law.
He also has insights into the way in which corporate America is often willing to exploit natural resources in ways contradictory to good stewardship for the sake of economic gain.
Dave Robicheaux’s personal moral conflicts as well as those of other characters, Albert Hollister and Alafair Burke, for example, raise fundamental questions about good and evil as part of the human condition. Burke writes mystery fiction but his work is so much more.
Elby Adamson is a retired English teacher and a Clay Center resident.