James Lee Burke has always featured on my family bookshelf. I will read almost anything if it’s left within reach, and so I had a go at a few of his novels when I was younger. None ever gripped me, and I had trouble getting past the first page. I’m not sure if this was because Burke can be quite a dense writer, or perhaps the vocabulary was too hard for me, or perhaps the topics simply didn’t interest me. It also had an aura of airport fiction about it, which to my mind was not a good thing.
One night I saw a movie based on one of Burke’s novels, and this inspired me to keep on past page one of ‘Sunset Limited’. I was hooked. What I had taken at first for boring and fatuous landscape descriptions transformed into prose of incredibly beauty, and characters with previously silly-sounding names enticed me into their world.
“The eastern horizon was strung with rain clouds and the sun should have risen out of the water like a mist-shrouded egg yolk, but it didn’t. Its red light mushroomed along the horizon, then rose into the sky in a cross, burning in the center, as though fire were trying to take the shape of a man, and the water turned the heavy dark colour of blood.”
Almost every author has a go at the sunrise, now almost a clichéd convention of literature, but Burke’s is saturated with symbolism of religion and war, an indicator of the forces that are about to steamroll through the lives of the novel’s characters.
Tommy Lee Jones also starred in an adaptation of Burke’s novel ‘In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead’, which is my favourite Burke novel. It hasn’t yet been released in Australia and when it is it will probably go straight to DVD.
If you enjoy mysteries or thrillers, Burke is a great way to get your fix without resorting to soggy paperbacks from the 2-for-$5 bin that overuse italics and dead bodies.