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Learning from the Masters: James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is the author of forty novels and is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant writers working today. He is now in his 80s and still turning out a book per year.


I became aware of Burke ten or twelve years ago, and over the course of the last decade, I have read a dozen or so of his books.


For those of you who have yet to make his acquaintance, I would tell you that although he has written in a number of genres, his most famous works are those featuring Dave Robicheaux, an alcoholic cop who spent years in homicide at New Orleans PD before being banished to New Iberia, where he continues his career in law enforcement.


I am thinking of Burke this morning because yesterday I finished his most recent novel, A Private Cathedral.


I am not sure what to say about the book. In it, we find Dave Robicheaux still fighting his demons, opposing evil, struggling with his awareness of his own demons while giving it his all to save others from theirs. Along the way, he encounters a “revelator,” a soul trapped for hundreds of years that seeks release from centuries-old imprisonment in the nether world between what we believe is the real world and the world which dwells just beyond us.


Burke’s tale is dark, troubling, metaphorical.


The brutality we see in the pages of A Private Cathedral is a sign to us, a symbol of the real brutality lurking always near the surface of humanity. The work is a cautionary tale that indeed it can happen here, just as it has happened in the past. Unthinkable acts of cruelty are ever with us, and we must be vigilant to oppose them day by day, lest we fall into their trap by turning a blind eye.


I recommend that anyone who wants to read magnificent literary writing acquaint himself with the work of James Lee Burke.


You may not want to begin with his newest book, but if you do, prepare to find human horrors wrapped in unforgettable prose.

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