Two books, two Burkes 

For James Lee and Alafair, crime writing is the family business

James Lee Burke has a new mystery, In the Moon of Red Ponies, his seventeenth book and the fourth of his series featuring Billy Bob Holland, the former Texas Ranger who has moved to Missoula and opened a law practice.

So does his daughter, Alafair Burke. Missing Justice, her second mystery, is set in Portland and features the deputy district attorney Samantha Kincaid first introduced in Alafair’s debut, Judgment Calls.

Jim’s new book depicts a world of small-town law with big-time connections—hard-bitten judges, unenlightened cops and fugitives hiding in the tree-covered hillsides. The book features Holland and his first Missoula client, Johnny American Horse, a young Native American; his reckless girlfriend Amber Finley, the daughter of Montana’s U.S. senator; and the wise-cracking Wyatt Dixon, a sociopath fresh from the slammer who buried Holland’s wife, Temple, up to her neck in Burke’s previous book Bitterroot.

In Alafair’s new book, deputy district attorney Samantha Kincaid has returned to work after an attempt on her life and a promotion to the Major Crimes Unit when Portland’s city judge, Clarissa Easterbrook, turns up missing. As the salty Kincaid follows the trail of Easterbrook’s size-seven Cole Haan shoe into the city’s power structure, she unravels a story of corruption and crime set in the tony west-coast world of expensive clothes and trophy homes that threatens not only her life but her job.

Jim, dressed in his customary Levis and brush-popper shirt, says he chose to write about Montana rather than Texas or Louisiana because, like writer John Steinbeck, he has a “love affair” with the place. “And there are more similarities than differences between Louisiana and Montana,” he says. “Both have extractive industries where the stakes are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Both feature dramas that are played out in remote places.”

Alafair is perched on a stool next to him, just before the Burkes’ joint appearance at Fact & Fiction on July 6. Her eyes are dark, direct, as she describes her new book as a morality play. “I wanted to expose the world of the prosecutors in Portland,” she says. “Prosecutors have enormous power that often goes unacknowledged. They are a part of the criminal justice system that the public rarely sees.

“Samantha is the same age and has the same job I did in Portland,” she adds. “But she runs faster, she’s taller, thinner, and she works out harder.”

Comparisons between father and daughter are, of course, inevitable. But the books are so different in tone, voice, setting and content that comparing the two seems pointless.

“It would be more surprising, really, if our work was similar,” Alafair says. “We’re different people, different genders and different generations.”

Who came first
It might come as a surprise to Missoula readers to know that James Lee Burke was the second crime novelist in the family. Alafair took the plunge first. An avid reader of the Encyclopedia Brown books about a young detective, Alafair used her father’s Royal typewriter to peck out crime stories such as “Murder at the Roller Disco” and “The Case of the Cat that Lost Its Meow.”

That was in the mid-1970s, in the days before her father had begun writing the 17 crime novels that would win him two Edgar Awards, be made into two motion pictures, and finance the construction of a new home on Lolo’s Sleeman Creek Gulch. That was in the days before Jim had a conversation on a fishing trip with fellow writer Rick de Marinis that would change his life.

Jim says de Marinis suggested that he try writing crime fiction. Jim tips his head back and laughs. “He said he’d heard you only need to write two chapters to get an advance.” With that, Jim wrote out, longhand, two chapters of Neon Rain. With that start, Jim created the character of detective Dave Robicheaux, a tough guy from the bayou who is in recovery from alcoholism and has a daughter named Alafair. A character who is, in the words of crime novelist Charles Willeford, “one of the most famous characters in crime fiction.”

Before the success of his crime novels, however, Burke went through a long drought: his sixth book, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected 111 times over nine years before it was published by Louisiana State University Press. It came out in 1984—the first time Burke had seen print in 13 years—the same year that Neon Rain was published.

By contrast, Alafair says she didn’t do the struggling artist bit. “I didn’t rent a fifth-floor walk-up on the lower East side,” she laughs. “I had a good day-job first.” Alafair worked for five years as a deputy district attorney in Portland and wrote her first book when she took a summer off to study for the bar before taking her present job teaching criminal law at Hofstra University in New York. “I couldn’t study for the bar full-time, so I started writing the book that had always been in the back of my mind.”

Family business
Jim read his daughter’s first book when she was two-thirds done. “My only comment,” he laughs, was “more white space.” He didn’t read the book until he received an advance reading copy from the publisher. “I had complete confidence in her work,” he says.

“Both dad and I are quite private when it comes to our work,” Alafair says. “Neither of us wanted to work with others on our books.”

Alafair, who has appeared in her father’s fiction in a Donald Duck hat or as a sullen adolescent, says she can empathize with her father now that she, too, has to write a book a year and go on book tours. “Now I understand why my mother was always trying to get us out of the house,” she says. “My dad was always trying to write.”

Both of them share the furious writing pace of a book a year. Jim, who divides his time between Missoula and New Iberia, Louisiana, has been writing full-time since 1956. Alafair writes in the summers. “During the school year, I write during the day when I teach at night,” she says. “And I write at night when I teach during the day.” Now that she’s on a month-long book tour, Alafair says she has learned to write anywhere. “I take my laptop to airports, motels. I get a lot done on planes.”

Alafair says she was not nervous following in her father’s footsteps as she was writing her first book—but when it was about to come out, she panicked. “I kept seeing the headlines, ‘Lisa Marie Presley Shouldn’t Sing.’” She laughs. “And I couldn’t help thinking to myself: ‘And Alafair Burke Shouldn’t Write.’”

Last year, James Lee Burke was a guest of honor at the 2003 Bouchercon International Crime Writing Conference. He was waiting to go on to speak, when his presenter, writer Mike Connelly, told him to relax and get a drink of water. “Then Connelly got up in front of 700 attendees,” Jim laughs. “And he introduced me as James Lee Burke, the father of Alafair Burke.”

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