James Lee Burke’s fiction is intense with autobiographical roots that entangle the plot and ensnare the reader. Born in Houston, Texas, in 1936, Burke grew up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast. He attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute and later received a B. A. Degree in English and an M. A. from the University of Missouri in 1958, and 1960 respectively. 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, and instructor in the U. S. Job Corps.
He and his wife Pearl met in graduate school and have four children: Jim Jr., an assistant U.S. Attorney; Andree, a school psychologist; Pamela, a television advertising producer; and Alafair, a law professor and novelist whose first novel was the mystery, Judgment Calls (2003).
Burke has won two Edgars for Best Crime Novel of the Year and received both a Breadloaf and Guggenheim Fellowship. Two of his novels, Heaven’s Prisoners and Two for Texas, have been made into motion pictures. His novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, and then, upon publication by Louisiana State University Press, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Combining brilliant storytelling with vivid descriptions of human and natural landscapes, Burke delves into contentious issues, such as racial violence, class warfare and the history of the South. In all his novels, he depicts the squalid underbelly of American society and evokes a fallen world in which the gap between blacks and whites, the haves and have-nots grows ever wider.
His most well-known character is Dave Robicheaux, Cajun detective and Vietnam vet who runs a fishing camp in New Iberia, Louisiana and is, as Burke says, “always on the side of those who have no voice or power.” The series begins with The Neon Rain (1987). In 1997, Burke published the first (Cimarron Rose) in a new series featuring Billy Bob Holland, an ex-Texas Ranger, now lawyer, wracked by guilt over the murder of his partner. He is a man “born with a legacy of violence,” according to his creator.
Burke has also written non-series novels, such as White Doves At Morning, a novel about the Civil War based on his own family history, and short stories.