About a month ago I promised to write semi-regular posts about some of the authors it's been my privilege to know throughout a long career in the book biz, as bookseller, publisher, and writer. I intended to do one this weekend, but it wasn't this one. Circumstances, however, changed my mind midstream.
I've known James Lee Burke for 30 years. I don't precisely remember the first time we met, but he says it was in Book Carnival in Orange County, and I've no reason to doubt that. Regardless, the first time he signed at my store was on November 7, 1990, on tour for Morning for Flamingos and the paperback of Black Cherry Blues. Here's the book he signed on that day, and a gracious postcard he sent at tour's end.
Since then, he's signed for me several times. I've visited with him and his wife Pearl at their home outside Missoula, MT. We've exchanged letters, the very occasional phone call, Christmas cards, and have always enjoyed one another's company, whether it was in one of my stores, at a dinner table, or browsing through the racks together at a record store. Here he is signing Dixie City Jam at Mysterious Galaxy, where I used to be a co-owner.
Jim is, to put it bluntly, one of the best writers ever to try his hand at crime/thriller fiction. He's written in a variety of genres, but his greatest creation is Dave Robicheaux, a New Orleans cop who winds up in the small town of New Iberia, LA, dealing with Mafia thugs and murderers and madmen, his buddy Clete Purcel always by his side. Here's an appreciation of Burke and Dave that's worth reading, despite a couple of typos. I started reading Jim with the first Robicheaux book, Neon Rain, and never stopped, working my way backward through his earlier books as well as grabbing each new release when it came out. I can't say I own every edition of every one of his books, but I think I own a copy of every book he's published.
In person, Jim speaks just like one of his great characters--sometimes with rich, poetic language, and sometimes blunt and profane. One of my favorite lines of his was when he was talking to me about his experiences with Hollywood--where, despite his great success as an author, he's never really been adapted well. Hollywood types sometimes drop in on New Iberia in the Robicheaux books, and it never goes well. Once, Jim said to me about that business, "If you dip your arm in a bucket of shit, it's gonna come out brown."
Hard to argue with.
Today, to my great delight, I got my copy of the newest Robicheaux book, A Private Cathedral, in the mail. Through the auspices of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, it's signed, even though Covid-19 obviously put a stop to Jim's tour plans. Mysterious Galaxy has signed copies as well.
But my enthusiasm for the book dimmed later in the day, when I learned of the passing of Jim and Pearl's daughter Pamala. I never met Pamala, but I communicated with her from time to time, because she often helped her dad run his business affairs, including coordinating tours and correspondence. (Her sister Alafair Burke is also a fine thriller writer--check her out, too.) And knowing Jim and Pearl, I know that they're absolutely heartbroken, and any joy they might have taken from the release of the new book has been sucked into a maelstrom of grief.
Today, Jim posted this on Facebook:
I grieve for a family that I love, a family that's been nothing but warm and kind to me and mine, and for one of the best writers I've ever known and a man I admire from head to toe. A man I'm proud to call a friend.