Thursday, November 10, 2005

Crusader's Cross -- James Lee Burke

OK, let's get the obvious out of the way: Burke still writes like a slumming angel. It's not the writing I have a complaint about. It's the plotting. It seems to me that most of Burke's books just meander around , full of sound and fury, for a couple of hundred pages, and then when it's time for the resolution, one is rushed on stage. I could easily be wrong about this, but that's my perception of the books lately. In Crusader's Cross, there are a couple of things about the plotting that really bother me, too, but I won't go into those since some of you might not have read the book yet.

I'm not sure if anybody else feels this way, but for me the Robicheaux novels, of which this is the latest, seem to be getting a little repetitive. There's the decadent southern family with a crazy daughter, along with the certain knowledge that Dave's going to fall off the wagon yet again and get fired from his job on the cops (or come close) while causing everybody he knows a heck of a lot of grief and trouble as he dispenses vigilante justice, badge or no badge. And Clete's going to help him. Meanwhile Burke is going to switch from first to third person point of view whenever he feels like it.

The prologue of Crusader's Cross is set in 1958 when Dave is 20 years old, which means that he's now 67. But he's as full of rage as ever, and he can still go out and run a few miles, come home and lift weights, and then do a few hundred pushups with his feet elevated and pressed against a wall. We should all be in that kind of shape when we hit 67. And sex? Dave gets plenty of that, too, without any pharmaceutical aids.

In spite of my litany of complaints, I don't have any plans to stop reading the books. The voice still holds me, and until it stops, I'll lay my money down.

Addendum: Just to let you know my Burke credentials, for many years he was a "whatever happened to" author for me. I bought (and still have) copies of and Half of Paradise and Lay Down my Sword and Shield when they first came out in paperback in the late '60s or early '70s. I got Burke to sign them a few years ago when he was on a book tour. I thought those two books were wonderful, but after they came out, the author disappeared as far as I knew. I wondered for a long time how a writer with so much talent could just drop out of sight. Then one day after I'd been in Alvin a couple of years, Jim Creel, a faculty member the college came by my office with a paperback copy of a mystery novel he'd just read. He said it was really good and wanted to know if I'd like to read it. When I saw the author's name on the cover, I got a very pleasant jolt and took the book off his hands immediately. I haven't missed one since.

6 comments:

  1. I enjoy Mr. Burke's books very much, but I don't read them for the plots. It's the mood and the setting. His main character is such a complex guy. Mr. Burke lets me feel the heat and the humidity, hear the buzz of the insects, and see the bayou.

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  2. I think Burke's fans buy his books for his voice. I do, but also because I grew up in New Iberia. The titles hook me too. Are they his titles or the publisher's or a collaborative effort? I read titles like In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, A Stained White Radiance, or A Morning for Flamingos, and I can't resist getting it.

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  3. I can top you when it comes to Burke. I have a first edition of Lay Down My Sword and Shield that I purchased for 69 cents at a basement sale in one of our major Canadian department stores. I also bought a first of My Lost Get-Back Boogie in a small independent store in Madiera Beach, Fl. in 1988 when it finally was published. The owner saw me looking through the fiction section and asked if I was looking for anything specific. I gave my stock answer - a book or author that I don't already know about. She recommended Boogie to me and was very surprised when I told her that I had already read Burke's earlier books including Half of Paradise and To The Bright and Shining Sun.

    I did not know that he had written the first of his Robicheaux series, The Neon Rain, until I came across a copy in the mystery section of our library. Since then I have bought HCs and read most of the early books, but stopped buying about six books ago. I have read the newer ones, but agree with you that he is writing the same story over and over. However, I enjoyed Crusader's Cross more than some of the other recent books perhaps because he introduced some new people into Dave's life.

    By the way, I discovered Kent Nelson in that Madiera Beach store.

    Kent Morgan

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  4. Sounds like a great store there in Madiera Beach!

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  5. Anonymous9:42 PM

    Billy, I just stumbled onto your website. Good to know about you and your observations about James Lee Burke and his stories.

    I am a fan of his, with Louisiana experience as well as Houston (Heights in the '50s) experience. I share many of your views regarding the plot issues. Burke's mastery of detail and his very descriptive writing style is extremely good, truly scratch-and-sniff stuff. Yet, in some of his Robicheaux stories, the plot has the feeling of being like many cinema efforts these days; that is, things move along for "x" number of minutes (or pages) and then "bam!" (as Emeril Lagasse might say) something is hurriedly thrust upon the reader in the form of a conclusion. The conclusions in Burke's stories are not terribly written, not at all; but the reader is left with a sense that something much better could have been written and presented in the form of a conclusion.

    When asked about his method of writing, Burke has said that his stories and plots just happen, that he does not outline his stories and conclusions in advance. He alludes to the story just "unfolding", as though he is just the scribe writing down the words of some unseen storyteller. Burke refers to Hemingway lore that says if the author knew the plot and the conclusion in advance, the reader would also. Hemingway was a great writer, but I am almost sure that he had at least some rudimentary outline of his stories, even if it was kept in his head.

    Perhaps authors like JLB can write without a story outline, but just imagine how your house would have turned out if the buider had no plan to work from. If your builder was a gifted artist, in the same sense that JLB is a gifted writer, maybe it would have been alright. But, for most of us mere mortals, it is difficult to work without at least a sketch to go by. If we "winged it" without a sketch to go by, you can almost bet that we would tend to follow whatever worked for us the previous time, whether we are an author or a builder or both.

    Crusader's Cross was an interesting read for those of us who knew Galveston back in the old days (long before I-10), and who also knew/know south Louisiana. Yet, some things seemed out of place or absent in the story. Robicheaux's daughter Alafair was not mentioned at all. Robicheaux meets a significant other (a nun in-training!) and hastily marries her, but no mention is made about the daughter being informed of the new arrangements.

    Do you use an outline (even if rough) for your stories?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous9:45 PM

    Billy, I just stumbled onto your website. Good to know about you and your observations about James Lee Burke and his stories.

    I am a fan of his, with Louisiana experience as well as Houston (Heights in the '50s) experience. I share many of your views regarding the plot issues. Burke's mastery of detail and his very descriptive writing style is extremely good, truly scratch-and-sniff stuff. Yet, in some of his Robicheaux stories, the plot has the feeling of being like many cinema efforts these days; that is, things move along for "x" number of minutes (or pages) and then "bam!" (as Emeril Lagasse might say) something is hurriedly thrust upon the reader in the form of a conclusion. The conclusions in Burke's stories are not terribly written, not at all; but the reader is left with a sense that something much better could have been written and presented in the form of a conclusion.

    When asked about his method of writing, Burke has said that his stories and plots just happen, that he does not outline his stories and conclusions in advance. He alludes to the story just "unfolding", as though he is just the scribe writing down the words of some unseen storyteller. Burke refers to Hemingway lore that says if the author knew the plot and the conclusion in advance, the reader would also. Hemingway was a great writer, but I am almost sure that he had at least some rudimentary outline of his stories, even if it was kept in his head.

    Perhaps authors like JLB can write without a story outline, but just imagine how your house would have turned out if the builder had no plan to work from. If your builder was a gifted artist, in the same sense that JLB is a gifted writer, maybe it would have been alright. But, for most of us mere mortals, it is difficult to work without at least a sketch to go by. If we "winged it" without a sketch to go by, you can almost bet that we would tend to follow whatever worked for us the previous time, whether we are an author or a builder or both.

    Crusader's Cross was an interesting read for those of us who knew Galveston back in the old days (long before I-10), and who also knew/know south Louisiana. Yet, some things seemed out of place or absent in the story. Robicheaux's daughter Alafair was not mentioned at all. Robicheaux meets a significant other (a nun in-training!) and hastily marries her, but no mention is made about the daughter being informed of the new arrangements.

    Do you use an outline (even if rough) for your stories?

    ReplyDelete