James Lee Burke talks about Clete Purcel, the Civil War and more

At age 86, the celebrated author has published 40 bestselling novels and has four more books finished. “I never rest,” he says.
James Lee Burke's new book, "Flags on the Bayou," is set during the Civil War.
James Lee Burke's new book, "Flags on the Bayou," is set during the Civil War. [ Courtesy of James McDavid ]
Published June 29|Updated July 20

When I ask author James Lee Burke whether the rumor is true that he’s finally written a novel devoted to his brawling, beloved character Clete Purcel, he laughs heartily and pumps his fists in the air.

A lot of readers are going to have the same reaction.

Clete has been the faithful sidekick to Burke’s best-known character, Dave Robicheaux, through 23 bestselling novels. They were “the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide,” then became freelance detectives in the territory around New Orleans and New Iberia, Louisiana, and points west.

Clete is a big man with big appetites and few boundaries, his wild sense of humor the counterpoint to the often serious Dave.

“I don’t know how many people over the years have said to me, write a Clete book,” Burke says during a Zoom interview from his home in Montana. “So I thought a lot of readers would buy the book. I hope they like it.”

They will have to be patient, though. Burke has two other books being published before that one, and a fourth completed for afterward. He’s 86 years old and has already published 40 novels and a couple of short story collections. Might he be ready for a rest?

“Oh no, I never rest.”

His latest novel, “Flags on the Bayou,” publishes July 11. All of Burke’s books have been haunted to some extent by the Civil War, but this time he sets the entire book in New Iberia in 1863, during the Union occupation.

It’s been two decades since he last set a book, “White Doves at Morning,” during the war, and a few of its characters reappear.

But he was moved to write this one, he says, by current events: “When people can start wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Six million is not enough,’ we’re in trouble.”

Burke says, “This is what’s difficult to make people understand: The Civil War was never over.

“We make jokes in the South, these damn Yankees. They’re spreading rumors that they won the Civil War. But it’s far more complex.”

He says that he never forgets something Civil War historian Shelby Foote said: “You cannot look at the mid-19th century with 20th century eyes.”

So in the novel, he says, “I tried to show that era through the eyes of nine individuals. There are enslaved women; there are what are called bluebellies.” There is also a young man from a wealthy plantation-owning family, a beleaguered constable, a crazed guerilla commander and a Northern-born abolitionist. “On both sides, the most honorable and the most dishonorable.”

Some historical figures appear, but most of the characters, he says, are aggregates. He borrowed the story of one of them, he says: an enslaved woman named Hannah who is searching for her little son, Samuel, whom she lost while cooking for soldiers at the battle of Shiloh.

If those names ring a bell, Burke says, “I hate to admit this, but I’ve been stealing from the Bible. I’m afraid down the track they’re going to say, you’re the guy who’s been stealing our stuff!”

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His own childhood on the Gulf Coast was steeped in stories of the Old South and Civil War battles. “My great-grandfather went up Cemetery Ridge. It was July, 95-degree heat, uphill for 40 minutes, they were tearing down fences as they went. In 40 minutes, 8,000 men were dead or dying.”

A plantation in the novel, the Lady of the Lake, is named for a plantation owned by his great-great-grandfather.

“He became a very wealthy man, and it was through slavery,” Burke says.

“I believe, as William Faulkner did, that this was the fall of the human race. It wasn’t back there in Eden, it was the enslavement of our fellow man. Twain said it, too. There’s no way to put a good hat on it.”

Burke says the structure of “Flags on the Bayou” is based on Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying.”

“I believe that and ‘The Sound and the Fury’ are some of the best books ever written,” he says. “If you want to learn how to write, read ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ It’s better than James Joyce.”

Like “As I Lay Dying,” he says, “Flags” is “always about people who are blinded by something. The individuals are all contending with each other.

“It’s meant to be a historical book, and it is meant to be about today. The same monsters are still out there.”

Due in January is “Harbor Lights,” a collection of Burke’s short stories and two novellas.

The longer novella, last in the book, is about Aaron Holland, a character Burke introduced as a young man in his novel “The Jealous Kind.”

This time, he says, “We meet him in his late 80s. He’s lost his daughter and begins to see things, sees through the veil. But what he sees is horrible,” visions of past and present.

The title short story, Burke says, is “the best short story I’ve ever written. I’ve never written anything that well. It’s the first (in the book) and joins hands with the novella.”

Then, sometime later in 2024, he expects to publish “Clete.”

“I just sent it in. Nobody’s read it yet,” he says. “It’s an experiment. I hope they like it.”

The book is set around the time of the 9/11 attacks, Burke says. It also has to do with Clete’s obsession with Joan of Arc. “He has another obsession, that’s antisemitism. He grew up in the Irish Channel, he was in gang fights. He knows what prejudice is about.”

Burke laughs again. “And Clete says, I have a job. I have to keep getting Dave out of trouble. He’s always getting us in trouble. He’s a good guy, but he just doesn’t have limits.”

He actually finished another novel before he wrote “Clete,” and that one will be published in 2025.

Called “Don’t Forget Me, Little Bessie,” it’s based on his mother, who “had a very hard life” and lived to be 102.

It’s set starting in 1907. “Bugsy Siegel is in it, Meyer Lansky is in it!” Burke says, name-dropping a couple of well-known members of the mafia in the early 20th century.

So your mother ran around with the mob?

Burke laughs again. “She’d get me upside the head! But I didn’t make them up. This is the real deal.”

He really wrote the book, he says, in memory of his mother. “The great stories are about people nobody pays attention to. I used to tell my creative writing students that a great writer is a great listener.”

Flags on the Bayou

By James Lee Burke

Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pages, $28