Dixie City Jam is not my favourite James Lee Burke novel - that is In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead - but there's a reason why it's the book that's open on this site's masthead: it was the book that ignited my passion for crime fiction, indeed for reading period.
I bought the book at London's Gatwick airport in June 1997 on my way to a week's holiday in Mallorca. At the time there was no particular pattern to my reading, which was not as prolific as it is has been in recent years, having fallen away after my schooldays as television, video and other forms of entertainment took over.
Dixie City Jam, bought on the strength of a blurb based on the discovery of a Nazi submarine off the Louisiana shore and neo-Nazi activity on dry land, was a complete revelation. I was introduced to a new world of literature where the canvass seemed so much broader, life somehow bigger - more edgy, more dangerous, more vivid - and characters cut from an entirely different cloth to anything I had experienced before.
And at the centre, of course, is Dave Robicheaux - veteran, private investigator, retired New Orleans Police Detective, alcoholic, father, husband, defender of the weak and downtrodden, scourge of the venal and corrupt. Robicheaux is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction: self-destructive and yet fiercely protective of friends, family, waifs and strays. He is driven by demons both internal - from a difficult childhood, his experiences in Vietnam and as a Cop - and external - from the mad and the bad who cross his path.
His behaviour can be violent, erratic and counter-productive while his fierce clarity of thought, intelligence and his loyalty make him a wise counsellor, a smart detective and steadfast ally.
I hold Robicheaux above other detectives for all of that complexity and for his essential goodness. I find myself wanting him to be happy, and his wives and daughter Alafair to be safe, not to mention his lunatic, cartoon-character buddy, Clete Purcel. And yet four or five times in each book I find myself shaking my head, muttering, "Dave, Dave, why do you do it...?"
And then there is the rich sense of place in Burke's novels, and in particular those set in and around his home town of New Iberia. Even the names themselves are enchanting, Bayou Teche, Atchafalaya Basin, Jeanerette and so on. John Connolly calls Burke "a poet of landscape" and he is spot on. He brings these places to life with such a vivid palette that I can smell the swamp and feel the claustrophobic pressure of the heavy and humid Louisiana air.
I was captured by this first book and had completed the back catalogue by the end of 1997, starting with the Robicheaux novels and then running through the others including The Lost Get Back Boogie, which might be the best novel you've never read.
After this the annual (or thereabouts) Burke novel became the highlight of the year, and everthing he's written sits on a shelf somewhere at home.
Reading Dixie City Jam also triggered my path into other great detective series including Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Ian Rankin's John Rebus and Robert Crais' Elvis Cole.
I strongly believe that Burke certainly belongs in the highest possible level of the pantheon of American crime writers and that in time the body of his work will results in him being regarded as one of the great chroniclers of American social history. More on Burke later in the 50 Books series when I look at Electric Mist.
My reviews of James Lee Burke novels
Pegasus Descending 2006
(This is a series looking at the 50 books that have been the most influential in my life and the development of my reading)
#1 - Emily the Goat by Jane Pilgrim
#2 - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend