Violent Conscience: Essays on the Fiction of James Lee Burke

Arthur Boers

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 3 (Fall 2010)

Leonard Engel, ed. A Violent Conscience: Essays on the Fiction of James Lee Burke. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

The mystery novel genre slowly gains theological credibility. One anecdote reveals our frequent ambivalence. A seminary instructor once told me about his world-famous theology professor. After studying with the man for some time, he was permitted into the fellow’s attic, where the illustrious scholar discretely and inaccessibly stored treasured tomes. The student was stunned to see shelves upon shelves of mysteries.

Yet, from time to time, we glimpse connections. Numinous experience is called mysterium tremendum, and challenging doctrines are named “mysteries.” In medieval days, scripture stories were popularly portrayed in mystery plays. Christian thinkers write mysteries – consider Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton. P. D. James’s volumes are literary works; their author is informed by Anglicanism.

I am particularly taken by James Lee Burke, a southern US novelist who produces a blockbuster almost every year. While not every single one is equally great, all are inevitably rewarding. I eagerly await each new volume from this best-selling author. English professor Leonard Engel shares my fascination, and pulls together in A Violent Conscience a diverse range of academic pieces by various scholars. His book helps plumb what is admirable in Burke’s writing, but also introduces the subject of why mystery novels are no longer necessarily “pulp fiction.”

Engel tellingly names Burke’s way of “casting a hard, critical eye on both past and present, the myth and reality of each” (13). Burke loves actual places where he’s lived and their history – Montana and Louisiana especially – and is forthright about what has been lost along the way and past injustices: “The combination of Southern pride, the guilt and shame of slavery, the resentment of Northern intervention, and the ongoing specter of racist practices inform Burke’s characters as they attempt to come to terms with the South’s troubled past” (19).

Several authors examine Burke’s transforming of the genre. Linda Holland-Toll notes that each of Burke’s hard-boiled investigators is “on the fringes of urban society” and “hunts down and captures criminals, often in opposition to … institutions of power” (74-5). Yet the protagonists wrestle with the DTs (or demons?) and sometimes even ghosts (or a troubled conscience?). Sam Coale marvels that “Burke’s vision threatens to capsize and deconstruct the typical narrative mystery trajectory”: Burke raises eternal questions that the mystery formula evades and avoids. Exactly what is the nature of good and evil in such a realm? Is resolution ultimately possible? Can historical solutions encompass mythic visions? (129)

Burke’s central character is often a troubled police officer or lawyer who struggles with a violent past (usually Viet Nam), alcoholism, and anger. The protagonist confronts unspeakable evil – environmental destruction, child abuse, government corruption – and untangles a sordid network of deceptions.

Two elements invariably unsettle me: Burke’s matter-of-fact acceptance and lavishly detailed description of the necessity of violence, and his portrayal of irredeemably corrupt villains. Ironically, Burke is informed by a left-leaning Roman Catholicism of such diehard pacifists as Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, and Daniel Berrigan.

Burke’s nuanced Catholicism is refreshing when so few authors today write well about Christians, either caricaturing or lampooning them. Burke mentions Catholic Workers, Maryknoll missionaries, and even Mennonites. One character even cites Augustine. Josiane Peltier insightfully analyzes the complexities of Burke’s “Christian value framework including the recognition of the incomprehensibility of destiny and evil” (126).

Burke writes vividly and viscerally about poverty, government corruption and ineptitude, environmental catastrophe, race and class issues, and misguided militarism. He denounces the oppressive School of the Americas and admires the International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies” of the early decades of the 20th century). I learned more from him about Hurricane Katrina than from most news accounts. He’ll have a lot to say about the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill.

This reflects yet another gift of Burke: his love for the environment, shown in lushly detailed descriptions of places and habitats. His portrayal of hot weather, sunsets and storms, bayou swamps, fishing, deserts, and mountain hiking could easily be collected in the finest nature writing anthologies. Yet even these are tragic. Thomas Easterling observes how history” (142).

One does not read Burke for ideological clarity. He often portrays violent fury as the only resolution and complains that the criminal justice system is too weak. Yet I appreciate his reading reality as tragedy – where good-hearted efforts often go awry and often no one comes out with clean hands or pure hearts. Brad Klypchak notes that while strong-minded pursuit of Christian justice is often framed as well-meaning, nevertheless “there rarely is a singular or simplistic choice” (35).

Burke’s work can be summed up as a search for redemption. I do not hide his books in the attic.

Arthur Boers, Associate Professor, RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, Ontario