James Lee Burke, currently the hottest crime writer in America, refuses to travel by aeroplane. When I fly over to interview him at his home in Missoula, Montana, I begin to understand why. Coming down low over the Rocky Mountains into the Missoula plateau , our pilot suddenly executes a series of power turns that leave the passengers looking green and the cabin crew positively mutinous. No wonder Burke stays put.
Next morning when I wake up and draw back the hotel room curtains to gaze at the Clark Fork River and the Bitterroot valley I realise he may have other reasons too for wanting to stay put in Montana. Its attractions are plainly visible: the sky, the mountains, forests and lakes, the sense of space that comes with living in a state bigger than Britain with a population smaller that Manchester. And Missoula itself is a fine town, full of great cafes and bars, as well as being home to a remarkable number of writers, amongst them James Crumley.
To get to James Lee Burke's place, you head north out of Missoula, MontAn along a road that leads up a wooded creek, climbing into the mountains, and just as it looks as if you've left civilisation behind you, and the road is petering out to nothing, you get to a wooden house.
Last time I was up this way, three or four years ago there was a brown bear in the garden, but this time there's just Burke himself - a stocky guy with a mop of sandy-to-brown hair and a big grin. Now in his late fifties, such is the nervous energy he gives off that much of the time you'd swear he was thirty, even forty, years younger.
James Lee Burke is enjoying himself these days. Pacing around his living room, he can hardly contain his enthusiasm as he shows me his advance video of Heaven's Prisoners, the movie based on the second book in his series of Louisiana crime novels. .And when, later that evening, we sit down to watch Heaven's Prisoners, it's easy to understand his enthusiasm. Like the books, the movie is no formula thriller but a meditation on the nature of evil, not simply set in south Louisiana but positively saturated in the sights, sounds and smells of that singular Cajun enclave.
Burke has ample reasons to be happy. Here he is living in one of the most beautiful corners of America along with Pearl, his wife of thirty-plus years. He's written what is already one of the great detective series in the history of crime fiction. His last novel, Burning Angel, finally saw him break through to the New York Times top ten bestsellers, and his new book, Cadillac Jukebox, promises to be his biggest yet. And now the novels' protagonist, and Burke's alter ego, Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux, has been incarnated on screen by Alec Baldwin. Life is sweet.
James Lee Burke is one of those people whose courtesy positively overwhelms you. Within seconds of arrival I've been offered coffee, juice, raisin toast, M&Ms, and a lavish assortment of vitamin pills. Now it's a question of what to do next. Watch the video? Go fishing? Go target shooting? Go to the gym and work out? Take a hike up the trail? On a fine spring day this last option seems the most appealing, so we decide to talk as we walk along the creek beyond his house, heading up towards the Rattlesnake Wilderness ( "no rattlesnakes there!" he assures me "just bears and cougars!").
He starts out by talking a little about the new novel, Cadillac Jukebox, in which Dave Robicheaux finds himself caught between two dangerous men. One, Aaron Crown, is a former Klan member convicted of murdering a black civil rights leader. The other is Bufoird LaRose, a golden-boy athlete turned politician, and the man who wrote the book that led to Crown's conviction.
"I started thinking about the book when I was in Jackson Mississippi, about four years ago,' says Burke, "and a notorious ex-Klansman was re-arrested for the murder of a civil rights leader back in the '60s. But the story itself is based on Greek myth. It's Orpheus and Eurydice. LaRose is Orpheus going into the Underworld."
And as the novel developes it becomes clear that Crown and LaRose have a lot more in commmon that one might at first suppose. "Yes, Aaron Crown represents the poor white trash, but the evil that seems to govern his life is an evil you would almost anticipate in a man of his background, Buford LaRose appears to be a liberal, but his ancestors were members of the Knights of the White Camelia, ex-confederate soldiers who waged an unholy was against people of color in the time of Reconstruction (after the Civil War). That taint seems to be in the soul of Buford LaRose."
Like all Burke's work, Cadillac Jukebox combines elegant prose with page-turning ease and a compelling need to understand the darkness in the hearts of men. But isn't such darkness a long way from the life of the man strolling along next to me, patting a stray dog we've picked up on our walk?
"Well, twenty years ago, I wasn't in such good shape, " he replies. Which turns out to be something of an understatement. Back then Burke was an alcoholic, a once promising young novelist who could no longer find a publisher, and was becoming an increasingly embittered assistant English lecturer at a university way out in the middle of Kansas.
"Then, in 1977, I bottomed out with my drinking and went through five and a half years of white knuckle recovery, doing it alone. It was the worst time in my life. There were two years when I didn't think I could make it. I tried to explain it to people - to minsters or priests or anyone who would listen, but they didn't understand what I was talking about. I couldn't explain what I was going through, but I did know that I was losing my mind. That's not hyperbole. I became delusional. I didn't drink but I was far worse psychologically than when I drank.
"Then an old friend of mine, a guy I used to fish with named Frank, joined a Twelve Step group and he came and visited us. I didn't think too well of such groups at the time, but I went to a meeting and that was it - I heard people talking about the same things I couldn't explain to everyone else.
"I belong to a Twelve Step group today, Through the programme - and, I believe, the influence of a higher power - I will have been sober for nineteen years this June. We subscribe to the belief that a time comes when the old life is no longer acceptable and that's when a person gets help in some fashion. If that time does not come we believe you will die, or go mad. So I feel very blessed in that I was given a second chance."
And if the whole Twelve Step philoosphy can sounds a little pat to cynical British ears, one can't ignore the fact that it's given Burke - and an amazingly large number of other American novelists, amongst them fellow crime-writers like Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy and Laurence Block - a new lease of life.
But to understand why Burke got into this mess, it's neccessary to go back to his roots. James Lee Burke grew up down south in Texas and Louisiana. "My family is from New Iberia in Louisiana, though I was actually born in Texas. My father worked for a Houston pipeline company, he was a natural gas engineer." Burke went to high school in Houston for a while, in a class with the rock'n'roll star Tommy Sands, before going to junior college in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he started to write - spurred on by the example of his cousin, the noted short story writer Andre Dubus.
To be young in the fifties was a great time for Burke - in fact as he talks about it I have a sense that it was the greatest time for him, that life was never again so vivid as it was then, when the USA was the greatest country in the world and change was everywhere, form the rise of rock and roll to the first stirings of the civil rights movement, when JFK was still the coming man and Vietnam was just a name on a map.
"I believe the '50s and the '20s are the definitive American decades. The fifties was a great time", says Burke, breaking into great gusts of laughter. "It was rock and roll man - the cars, the music, the attitudes, the kind of manical comedy, the kind of reckless innocence... Sure it had its downside with McCarthy and all that, but it was all there. The best and the worst was there.
"The language was great, a sort of blue collar lyricism in our language. The music was teriffic - rhythm and blues, Ructh Borwn, Lavern Baker Gatemouth Brown, BB King, Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed - 'the hippie dippie from Mississippi' they used to call him, hah! - it was just a musical time. Great dances - the jitterbug, the bop the dirty boogie!. But again it was a time of innocence - the great love affairs of my generation all happened at the drive-in movies - it was all stylised lust! People were all aware they were being watched so they would hold all these romantic poses so that everyone could see them through their car windows."
But Burke's fifties had their dark side too. His father died in 1955, in a car accident, and his drinking began to lead him into trouble. One time it even landed him in the Parish Jail, a place he described as 'not an exceptional enviromment, just a typical Deep South jailhouse gig of 1955 - one cast-iron lockdown unit inside an enormous room called the bull pen'.
Two things particularly impressed Burke about the experience. One was the fact that a man had been executed there just weeks beforehand - back then the Electric Chair used to tour the parish jails. That left him with a life long abhorrence of capital punishment: "I see capital punishment as barbaric, and practised on the most vulnerable pople in our society." Secondly there was a break out while he was there. Three armed robbers from Nevada crashed out of this little local jail. As a result Burke and the others who remained behind, far from being rewarded for staying put, were locked up in the hole for a week..
Talking about those experineces now, Burke has no desire to put his chequered past on show, after the fashion of a self-publicist like James Ellroy. Instead he's keen to focus on the more uplifting side of it, "As a young writer" he says, measuring his words carefully, "I had some experiences that made me aware of the suffering of others. I had the good fortune to be incarcerated amongst the most nameless faceless individuals in our society and the effect of that was to convince me that good can come out of bad."
At the time though it was clearly a traumatic experience. Burke's early novels are absolutely crammed with stories of people either escaping from prison, or coming to terms with life after being released from prison. The first of these, Half Of Paradise, was written a couple of years later while he was at Graduate School in the University of Missouri, studying Creative Writing. It was a hectic time. In class he met his wife Pearl, a poet and one-time air stewardess, originally from Taiwan, and in short order they married and had their first child.
Completed shortly after his twenty-second birthday, Half Of Paradise stands as a remarkably tough and mature debut, the story of a Louisiana boy called Avery Brousard who comes back from a stint on the oil rigs to find his father dying, and then goes off on an alcoholic binge that eventually lands him in prison. Woven in with this - evidently autobiographically inspired - scenario are the stories of two less fortunate men, a black boxer and a country singer, and the result was a book of which the New York Times' reviewer said that 'I have never read better prison scenes'.
But that wasn't until four years later. Four dispiriting years in which Burke found it impossible to find an agent, let alone a publisher, for the book, Meanwhile he and Pearl had two more children and he worked at a bewildering series of jobs, "I became a land surveyor in Colorado, then a social worker on skid row in Los Angeles. After that I went back to Louisiana as a newspaper reporter in Lafayette. I lost that job after a strike and went to work for the State Employment Service. Then I finally got a publisher for the book."
Even that wasn't the end to Burke's struggles. A modest advance and the arrival of a fourth child meant he had to keep on working. First for the US Forest service in Kentucky and then at a series of teaching jobs. Nobody wanted the next two novels he wrote. And it wasn't till six year later, in 1970, that he got back into print with To The Bright And Shining Sun, another fine, dark novel, this time inspired by his time in Kentucky.
"The following year I published a Texas novel, Lay Down My Sword And Shield, and I thought I was cooking with butane, throwing 7s and 11s every time! Thirty-three years old and three books published in New York! But it was thirteen more years before I was back in hardcover again."
The seventies were not a good decade for Burke. On the one hand there was his drinking, on the other hand publishing fashion had moved away from the kind of two-fisted social realism in which Burke specialised: "During the '70s it was real tough for male writers" he tells me, as I balance precariously on a single log bridge over the creek. "The country was involved in national self-recrimination. It was a time when minority literature came into its own. Which was great, but meant I had to hang in there till the wheel came around And I think that ironically the same social forces that elected Reagan in 1980 were responsible for a return of interest in male fiction. Because Reagan represented in a cosmetic way a superficial set of male values - a John Wayne without the tattoos.'
In fact it took till 1985 for the wheel to come round for Burke. That was the year the LSU Press published a book of short stories, The Convict. The next year they followed it up with The Lost Get Back Boogie, a novel originally written thirteen years earlier and rejected by over a hundred different publishers. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and the newly sober Burke was back in business.
Meanwhile he had begun work on what was to become his first crime novel, The Neon Rain, set in New Orleans and featuring a cajun cop named Dave Robicheaux.
Dave Robicheaux is an anabashed alter ago for his creator - a recovering alcoholic with a love of fifties music and a hatred for all forms of hypocrisy and corruption. And while the novels are never shy of bringing in big political themes - from the US's covert involvement in Latin America to the environemntal rape of Louisiana - it's clear that the central battle is not between Robicheaux and the bad guys but between Robicheaux and the demons in the bottle.
For while in his early novels Burke was a writer obsessed with attempts literally to break out of prsion, the Dave Robicheaux books are stories of a man who has finally escaped. It's as if a light came on at the age of forty and let Burke see that the prison he'd spent so long trying to escape what not the actual one of his Louisiana teens but the more portable one that took the shape of a glass of bourbon, or a frosted longneck bottle of Jax beer.
"Writing The Neon Rain was the beginning of a whole new way of looking a t the world " recalls Burke, Much of m y ealier wiork had refelcted a view of the world as seen though a glass darkly." The Robicheaux novels, by ocontrast, teem with light and colour and all the gaudy charm of southern Louisiana. .While Robicheaaux himslef is man intoxicated by the simple joys of life
"Robicheaux's my favourite character" comments Burke, "He has the dimensions of a Greek hero. He's one of those who - because of their courage or intelligence or investment in the welfare of others - live more intense lives" And then he goes on to say, in words that clearly apply just as well to Burke himself as to his fictional alter ego, that "The amount of joy a person experiences in their life will be in proportion to the amount of suffering they experience."
And sitting back in Burke's kitchen, drinking the chicory coffee he brings back from New Orleans, looking out at the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies, and listening to him and Pearl talk about the second home they're planning to build in Louisiana right on the banks of the Bayou Teche, it's pretty hard to argue with that.