James Lee Burke, one of America’s most admired mystery authors, has written 36 novels, including Robicheaux, a new book featuring his most beloved character. Below, Burke recommends books he considers must-reads for any aspiring novelist.
Best books... chosen by James Lee Burke
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (Vintage, $15). In terms of experiment and skill with point of view and stream of consciousness, Faulkner’s 1929 novel has no peer. There is a magical light hovering over the pages that stays with you forever.
Collected Stories by Ernest Hemingway (Everyman’s Library, $20.50). The author took what was best in Twain and made it better, and proved that the declarative sentence and the monosyllabic word and white space and ellipsis and silence could create a harmony greater than the spheres.
Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (Library of America, $40). She saw beauty in social decay and used the rural South as a biblical backdrop for the struggle between good and evil. Her characters could be grotesque and yet make us laugh without laughing at them. Her spirituality and private struggle still burn like a candle inside her words.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (Harper, $10). I believe this to be the best crime novel in the English language. The talent and craft at work in this fine novel are head-reeling. Many of the paragraphs are sonnets, and the characters, both good and evil, are among the best and most intriguing in American literature.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Penguin, $18). This book captured the entire tragedy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl through the portrayal of farm people who were set adrift in a sea of sand and despair. The simplicity of the characters, and their courage and desperation, remind us to this day that the soul of our country is indomitable.
The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr. (Mariner, $15). This is perhaps the most Homeric novel in American writing. Guthrie wrote about the American West as though he were writing about Creation itself. The prose reaches levels that seem metaphysical. Guthrie (who also wrote the screen adaptation of Shane) and John Neihardt taught everybody else how to do it right. The rest of us, from Louis L’Amour to guys like me, remain their students.