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Burke, James Lee

Entry updated 29 October 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1936-    ) US author active from the mid-1960s, though he only became widely known with the long Dave Robicheaux sequence of noir crime novels beginning with The Neon Rain (1987); set mostly in Louisiana from the mid-1980s on, they have become recognized as a significant series of interwoven tales – almost a roman fleuve – in which a portrayal of the gradual destruction of bayou country and the Mississippi delta gradually expands into an elegiac essay at comprehending the Matter of America. Most of the sequence remains essentially nonfantastic, though In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993), which was filmed as In the Electric Mist (2009) directed by Bertrand Tavernier, is built around Robicheaux's Timeslip encounters with a Confederate General, whose re-enactions of a doomed Civil War battle increasingly seem to articulate and to challenge America's long history of racism (see Equipoise; Race in SF). Echoes of this use of the Fantastika palette less comprehensively infuse Burning Angel (1995) and Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002).

Far more explicit, A Private Cathedral (2020) – set around the year 2000 but told by Robicheaux from the perspective of a 2020 he does not want to face – is structured around manifestations of a quasi-human torturer from the sixteenth century, a "time traveller" (see Mysterious Stranger; Time Travel) whose initial role seems that of committing atrocities on behalf of a New Orleans gangster/entrepreneur named Shondell (see Horror in SF). But the stranger is also a revelator, a quasi-messianic entity who forces sinners to tell the truth about themselves; over the course of the tale he gradually takes on a more human shape, a secular parousia caused by a "sense that time was ending" for homo sapiens and the planet; that "he saw the future", "the graveyard of the world". His intervention leads to a very partial lightening of the darkness of America in 2000, and the death of the fascist Shondell. But as the frame story makes clear, this muted commutation of sentence would end in 2001, and a man whom Shondell had long served, a billionaire populist who is neither named nor seen in the tale, would survive and flourish. [JC]

James Lee Burke

born Houston, Texas: 5 December 1936


series (highly selected)

Dave Robicheaux


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