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Author Gives More Than The Mystery

MONDAY, AUG. 28, 1995

James Lee Burke is sitting in a Phoenix hotel room, talking over the phone to yet another reporter. And he says, “I’ve had worse problems.”

Case in point: The Louisiana native has had 14 novels published over the past 30 years, and only now is he enjoying national fame.

His 1994 novel “Dixie City Jam” was his first to make the New York Times best-seller list. And as we go to press, his latest novel, “Burning Angel” (Hyperion Books, 340 pages, $22.95) likely is headed there.

“I’m real proud of this book, I have to admit,” he says. “I think it’s the best I’ve ever written.”

“Burning Angel,” which Burke will read from at Auntie’s Bookstore at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, is the author’s eighth in his critically acclaimed Dave Robicheaux series. At heart a hardboiled mystery, it features a complex protagonist in Robicheaux, who is honorable but flawed, a man continually ready to battle for friends and family in a corrupt world.

Like the true masters of the form - Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and, more recently, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Bloch and Carl Hiaasen - Burke is trying to do more than merely entertain. His intent is to write contemporary history, even a sociology of culture.

Thus, in “Burning Angel,” we find sheriff’s detective Robicheaux of New Iberia, La., involved in a web of intrigue involving a disputed land deal, multiple murders, international drug dealing, the CIA, Mafia, corporate gamesmanship, Central American massacres and the legacy of Vietnam.

And at the center of it all is a slippery guy named Sonny Boy Marsallus, whose ticket appears to get punched more than once - but whose presence keeps popping up whenever Robicheaux, something of an ex-friend, needs help.

Burke is less interested in the individual face of any specific criminal than he is in the larger issue of corruption itself.

“We’re not so much threatened by the criminal in the street but by the political criminal in our midst,” Burke says. “That’s the moral emphasis in the book… . As he (Robicheaux) says, how many times does a police officer turn the key on a slumlord or a zoning board member who takes juice to translate an impoverished neighborhood into a home for massage parlors, low-life businesses that compromise the already impaired lives of the poor? These are the guys who do the damage to our society.”

The key to all his books, Burke says, is “moral and political imbecility in modern times.”

It’s always been that way for the ex-oil-field hand, social worker, land surveyor, newspaper reporter and college professor.

“The novels that I am writing today differ very little in terms of content or setting or character from the novels that I wrote many years ago,” he says.

The first was 1965’s “Half of Paradise.” Several others have won awards, including the prestigious Edgar Award for the Robicheaux novel “Black Cherry Blues” (1989).

Burke moved to Missoula to teach at the University of Montana in the mid-1960s, and he still owns a home, he says, “10 miles out” of town.

Although he has full respect for the genre, Burke admits that he specifically attempts to transcend the hardboiled format.

“It’s my point of view,” he says, “that any writing in which the author invests himself truly will not be of a categorical type. Once he writes to satisfy a genre or a category, he will never be successful in what he does.”

That’s why, he says, “Dave Robicheaux describes not so much the world of a police officer as simply the conflict between good and evil that all people experience every day. Each of the novels in the series is intended to cover a different area of experience and social concerns. And Dave Robicheaux becomes everyman out of the medieval morality play.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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