My Favorite Author

by Randy Murray on April 29, 2013

Having me pick a favorite author is like having me to select a favorite breath of air. Reading for me is very much like breathing. It’s necessary to keep me alive, to keep me sane. I do it without thinking, without consciously saying, “I think I’ll sit down and read.” For me, it’s the default state. If I’m not doing anything else, I’m reading.

Favorite writer? A futile question. My answer will vary depending on my mood when you ask, the time of day, or, more importantly, the book I’m currently reading.

But you came here for my favorite author, so here he is: James Lee Burke.

Some call Mr. Burke a genre writer. That may be true, but it’s also dismissive. Burke’s books are almost all mysteries, all detective novels (with a few cowboys thrown in for good measure), but I dare even the most exclusive “literary novel” reader to pick up any one of Burke’s works at random and tell me that this author isn’t one of the finest practitioners of writing in the English language. If you love mystery novels, you should know Burke. He’s won the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America twice.

Most of his work is set in the deep South, in and around New Orleans, but also in Texas and, on occasion, in Montana. Burke’s mastery of place, atmosphere, and setting are simply stunning. Read just the opening page of any of his books and you are there. You might call it cinematic, but Burke practices some sort of literary virtual reality. You know where the characters are standing at every moment. You’re standing there right there with them. You can feel the heat and humidity, you can hear, taste, and smell as they do. I can’t imagine a computer simulation that could be as complete and as deeply immersive.

I’d say his work is a master class in writing, but he is so powerful that it’s hard to not be swept away by his words. It’s difficult to analyze what he does without suddenly finding yourself emerging at an end of a chapter and asking yourself, “How did that happen?” But study him I do. I don’t choose to emulate him, but I do want to understand how he does it.

Burke writes about crime, violence, and deep personal demons. His novels can be shocking, disturbing, and profoundly suspenseful. And they are satisfying for me in a real and deep way. It’s a good thing for me that Burke is prolific, averaging a book every year. For a long while his publication schedule coincided with our family vacations to the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina and I looked forward to settling down in my beach chair with a cooler of beer at my side, an umbrella over my head to shelter me from the heat and act as a break from the unrelenting wind, and the latest James Lee Burke novel in my lap. When I think vacation, that’s the image that pops into my head.

I first discovered Burke by listening to an interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air by the incomparable Terry Gross. He read aloud from his novel, “Heaven’s Prisoners” and from that moment I was hooked. There in my car, listening to him read, I found that I was holding my breath (which is not recommended while operating a motor vehicle). I quickly bought and read everything he had published to date and ever since have made a point to buy his latest book in hardback. I look at that as a way to reward the author, hoping that he’ll keep it up. His main character, Dave Robicheaux, is like an old friend now and I’m glad to see him, even if I know that Dave is a troubled man and violence follows him.

You can start anywhere, but if you’re at all interested in series fiction you’ll want to start at the beginning with “The Neon Rain,” published in 1987. I recently reread the first five Robicheaux novels and was impressed once again at how powerful Burke’s writing is, how fresh, and how demanding he is of the reader. He tells the stories his way and will simply not permit the reader to look away.

His latest novel is on its way to me now. “Feast Day For Fools.” I can’t wait.

For completeness, I’ll add a list of other favorite authors. They are, in no particular order, William Gibson, Patrick O’Brian, Gene Wolfe, Barbara Tuchman, Alfred Bester, Neil Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Steven Pinker, George Dyson, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), E.B. White, John McNulty, James Thurber, Vernor Vinge, John D. MacDonald, Rex Stout, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Ted Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, James Clavell, Brian Aldiss, James Blish, Olaf Stapledon, Robert Zelazny, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Ann Pratchett, Richard Powers, Richard Russo, Jarod Diamond, William Least Heat Moon, Oliver La Farge, Larry McMurtry, Gore Vidal, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alexander Dumas, Gustav Flaubert, Walker Percy, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, John Irving, E. M. Forster, Milorad Pavic, Adam Gopnik, Michael Chabon, David McCullough, George R. R. Martin, Gerald Posner, Ambrose Bierce, Daymon Runyon, Donald Westlake (Richard Stark), Nathaniel Philbrick, J. R. R. Tolkein, Larry Niven, John Ciardi, Neil Simon, …

This list is in no manner comprehensive or complete. I simply stopped typing. I expect to add to my list of favorite authors quite soon.

Originally published in the Read & Trust Newsletter

The My Favorite Author by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

jonsiddle April 29, 2013 at 10:30 am

Agreed - a favorite author to me is like my favorite meal for the day/week. All dependent on the mood I’m in and what I would like to take in. My favorite author of late: Robin Sloan. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was one of the best books I have read in recent memory.


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