Appreciating James Lee Burke One More Time

Like many people, I tend to read murder mysteries for reasons other than the mystery itself. For example, I read Jonathan Kellerman for the psychological insight into his characters. I read Janet Evanovich for the humor. And when I want to try a mystery dripping with atmosphere, there’s only one author I turn to – James Lee Burke. He’s a master of making you engage your five senses – whether you like it or not. When he sets a scene near a swamp, for example, you come away sweating from the heat and drenched in humidity while smelling the rotten eggs odor of a landscape filled with muck, alligators and lightning continually flickering on the horizon. Every page of his books speaks of menace and violence, and the characters his detectives run into make the gators look positively benign. Before I read Burke, when writing my own books, I tended to ignore atmosphere in favor of action. Now when creating my murder mysteries, I pay close attention to how the atmosphere and the characters resonate with each other. I live in Wisconsin so my settings are obviously different from Burke’s. Instead of enervating heat and humidity, I have ice and snow and winds sharp as a knife cutting through your skin and clothing. Instead of the teeming life of a swamp, I have isolated and ominously empty north woods populated with little but bears and murderous drug lords with hidden meth labs. In short, any of James Lee Burke’s books is a master class in the vital importance of showing how atmosphere defines character – and gives the reader a shuddering thrill along the way to the solution of a crime.

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