Book critics have a way of talking about popular writers whose talent and ambition set them apart from the mass-market crowd: Such writers “transcend the genre.” A mystery writer who aspires to transcendence may approach his task in one of several ways. He may disturb us with news of corruption and systemic failure; he may reflect on human weakness, on the everyday compromises that lead to tragic ends; he may probe the criminal mind and the mystery of evil; or he may turn a jaundiced eye on the wretched human scene, sizing it up with studied composure: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
British writers P.D. James and Ruth Rendell brought psychological insight and exacting moral judgment to their detective fiction. Their explorations of human fragility and evil moved them beyond the classic English cozy mystery, a genre that reached its peak with Agatha Christie. In the United States, noir writers from Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard made seedy realism and tough-guy cynicism one of the most recognizable styles in popular culture. At least a few of them transcended their pulpy material. With his jazzy, streetwise diction, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe defined his age as surely as Gatsby. Along with Dashiell Hammett and Ross McDonald, Chandler gave the lowly private eye a place among literary icons.
James Lee Burke stands out as a contemporary crime writer with claims to transcendence. He has been prolific in the noir genre since 1987, earning a blurb from Walker Percy and praise from Joyce Carol Oates. But the most transcendent thing about Burke is perhaps not a literary quality but a moral one: Catholicism is the living center of Burke's writing. Whereas the noir tradition typically gives the last word to pessimism and despair, Burke does not observe evil with nihilistic detachment. He responds to it with a confrontational fury rooted in a Catholic understanding of human nature. For anyone interested in the Church’s presence in the wider culture, Burke’s body of work, especially his so-called Robicheaux series, deserves a closer look.
Burke's Robicheaux novels revolve around the adventures of their narrator, Detective Dave Robicheaux. Arguably, though, the novels' central character is not their narrator at all, but rather their setting: South Louisiana. The son of illiterate parents, Robicheaux grew up in the Cajun backwoods. His Louisiana is a third-world country where the dominance of old-money families keeps in place a stultifying class and racial hierarchy. Corruption is endemic. The worst consequences fall on the poor, who reside near toxic dumping-grounds, in squalid trailer parks or derelict shacks, and work for rock-bottom wages. Their world will be familiar to anyone who watched the first season of HBO’s True Detective.
In addition to the venal rich, Robicheaux must contend with the New Orleans mafia and their enforcers, the dimwitted “greaseballs” who deal out brutal violence. Drug-peddling street gangs terrorize the city’s poor. These various groups form a criminal ecosystem as fixed and menacing as the Atchafalaya Basin.
So far, so noir. But here is where Burke's distinctiveness emerges: Into this world, he sends another type of villain, one that embodies nothing less than demonic evil. Like Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, these devilish psychopaths seem to come from nowhere—or from hell. Burke’s novels contain some of the most chilling psychopaths to haunt the pages of contemporary fiction. Dixie City Jam, for example, features the unforgettable Will Buchalter, a crazed neo-Nazi who teams up with his equally psychotic sister to terrorize Robicheaux and his family with sexualized threats. In Jolie Blon’s Bounce, we meet a man named Legion Guidry, whose name says it all. At one point he ends up in jail, where he reduces the other inmates to mortified silence with his sinister muttering.
The actions of these people defy rational or psychiatric explanation. Burke proffers instead a theological key. As Robicheaux says: “I believe the causes that create [serial killers] are theological in nature, rather than societal. I believe they make a conscious choice to erase God's thumbprint from their souls.” Why and how such people deface their own natures remains opaque, perhaps unknowable. But, as Robicheaux concludes in Dixie City Jam, we do not need to comprehend such people. We need to stop them.
Despite appearances, they do not possess supernatural power over our lives: “They aren’t fashioned from anvil and chain in a devil’s forge. . . . [T]here was no metaphysical mystery. . . . Their souls had the wingspan of moths; they functioned because we allowed them to and gave them sanction; they stopped functioning when that sanction was denied.” The presence of evil in the world should not fascinate us. It should rouse us to action.
Robicheaux derives a hopeful message: Evil is not inevitable. Evil is enabled by indifference, corruption, or fear. Evil endures because too many people wage war with their God-printed natures. Robicheaux himself exemplifies this inner conflict. His struggle with alcohol perennially threatens to wreck his life and hurt his family and friends. Pure evil marks an extreme, but psychopaths are not the only people in Burke's fiction who tend toward violence and self-destruction.
This account of evil recalls a phrase from the pear-stealing scene in Augustine’s Confessions: amavi perire, amavi defectum meum. In Henry Chadwick’s translation: “I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall.” John K. Ryan renders the phrase: “I loved to go down to death.” The perverse will to nothingness lies in every person, as Burke seems to know. He also knows that people may reject this evil impulse and work for good. This knowledge saves Burke from lapsing into easy cynicism (a noir cliché) or theological fatalism.
As an artist, Burke is no slouch, either. Though his Robicheaux novels have been labeled “bayou noir,” his prose eschews the deadpan style of classic noir. It mimics instead the lush, teeming atmosphere of southern Louisiana. With a few sentences, Burke can conjure the sodden beauty and strange menace of the Gulf Coast: its subtropical humidity (the air “bitten with salt”), its sudden thunderstorms, its labyrinthine swamps. And always New Orleans shimmers on the horizon, the seductive femme fatale of every Robicheaux novel. The city is both a Petrarchan sonnet and “the Big Sleazy.”
Novels that hold up well include The Neon Rain, A Morning for Flamingos, Black Cherry Blues, and Purple Cane Road. More recently, Tin Roof Blowdown gave a harrowing glimpse of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina and, to my mind, confirmed Burke’s stature. As the reader will quickly notice, however, his plots follow a predictable formula. Reading several Robicheaux entries back to back, one gleans the impression that a heck of a lot of sadistic killers are on the loose out there, and Detective Robicheaux encounters them all. Burke’s interest in sadism comes to seem less like a study of evil and more like a crime-writing trope. Other stock Burkian villains (mobsters, the rich) likewise become, with each new appearance, interchangeable.
If Burke's detective fiction “transcends the genre,” then, it does so not because he avoids flat characters or clichés. The success of the Robicheaux series lies elsewhere, in the author’s love for the world he describes with sensuous passion and for the people working to save it. Burke's bayou is a menacing place. It is also a place of beauty, full of green-gold light and graced, now and then, with a pelican—the state bird of Louisiana and a Christological symbol. Burke’s novels remain vital not because they serve up gruesome details but because they show the beauty of a world tainted by evil and the nobility of those who keep on working, against the odds, to check the bloody tide.
Richard T. Whittington holds a Ph.D in philosophy from Baylor University and serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.