Crime Fiction Pays

Few contemporary authors are as closely associated with their literary alter egos as James Lee Burke is with his creation, Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. Both hover around age 60, are recovering alcoholics and family men and live in atmospheric New Iberia, Louisiana. But Burke, a native Houstonian who graduated from Lamar High School, never saw a labor leader gruesomely crucified by vigilantes. Robicheaux does in Sunset Limited, Burke's tenth book featuring the private eye. "That incident really happened in the bayou country," says the soft-spoken author. But Burke didn't scour yellowed newspaper clippings for the details. "I've never researched my work," he says. "I've always thought that if I need to research something, then I shouldn't be writing about it."

Burke, whose rough-hewn looks bring to mind a gentler Tommy Lee Jones, says he's grateful to be writing for a living at all. He suffered through battles with the bottle and a series of hard-scrabble jobs that led him all over the country before he finally found his niche in the crime novel -- and his hero (though he's a flawed one) in Robicheaux.

But it was another Burke protagonist, Texas Ranger-turned-lawyer Billy Bob Holland, who helped to land the author last year's Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Mystery Novel; the winning work was Cimarron Rose. "It was a special book, but the sequel [due next summer] is the best thing I've ever written," Burke says. "I've never been happier with my work than in the past few years."

And his success on paper is beginning to translate to other, more visual media. Burke's western Two for Texas was recently adapted for cable (the TNT vehicle starred Kris Kristofferson), and Robicheaux was ably portrayed by Alec Baldwin in the underrated 1996 theatrical release Heaven's Prisoners. Burke hints that the detective may soon return to the big screen.

Of growing up in Houston, Burke says he doesn't remember specifics as much as the feel of the era, but he does share one gastronomic flash of nostalgia: "If anybody who was living in Houston in the early '50s remembers Bill Williams Fried Chicken, they will lower their eyes in reverence. This was the best fried chicken ever made on the planet. The crust on that baby was about a half-inch thick. And no grease at all. You could start an international war over that chicken."

-- Bob Ruggiero

James Lee Burke reads from and signs Sunset Limited at 6 p.m. Friday, June 12 (which the city of Houston has proclaimed James Lee Burke Day). Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet, 524-8597.