There are some matchups that are destined to see the underdog upset the grand master.
This is not one of those cases.
James Lee Burke has written 18 Dave Robicheaux books (for the sheer volume of his collection, I am omitting his other very good series); Tana French has written 3 Murder Squad books, each featuring a different character spun off from the previous novel.
Is there any chance for the talented French to overcome the odds stacked against her?
Lee Burke is the number one seed for a reason...
1) Quality of Books - Let's start with French who has three published books, each featuring a different main character (her fourth follows the same format). Here is how I ranked her three titles:
Good: In the Woods,
Okay: The Likeness, Faithful Place
However, if one was to give French ratings based on the synopsis's for her novels, she would be one of the greatest mystery writers alive.
Now we tackle the immense collection of Lee Burke...
Great: The Tin Roof Blowdown, Swan Peak, A Morning for Flamingo's, A Stained White Radiance, Heaven's Prisoners, Black Cherry Blues
Very Good: Burning Angel, The Glass Rainbow, The Neon Rain, Dixie City Jam, Jolie Blon's Bounce, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, Purple Cane Road,
Good: Sunset Limited, Cadillac Jukebox, Crusader's Cross, Pegasus Descending, Last Car to Elysian Fields
Breaking down the percentages makes it pretty clear Lee Burke dominates - 13 of his 18 books are in the Great to Good range (72%), 0% of French's novels fall into the same catagories.
Gigantic Advantage: Lee Burke
2) Great Characters - Lee Burke has created two of the best characters in modern mysteries: his "hero" Dave Robicheaux and "morally complex" Clete Purcell. Robicheaux and Purcell are tormented, haunted men who lash out violently and are prone to self-destructive behavior. Purcell's best moment? Bulldozing a mobster's house. Lee Burke has brilliantly crafted two men who are not always likeable, but are shockingly compelling. I have not even gone into his villains who are often so real that you can picture them sitting next to you. There are no cardboard cutouts in Lee Burke books, every character is fully fleshed out. Rather brilliantly, I might add.
French rotates characters frequently and is intensely interested in how they fall apart throughout their various investigations. The pick of her litter? Probably Cassie Maddox who appears in two books and in the second has to impersonate a murder victim in order to root out the killer. Again, if you were giving points for the synopsis of a novel, French wins this thing by a mile.
Ultimately Clete Purcell may be the greatest character in mystery novels...ever. The man is at times a little boy, and at others a psychotic killer. Only Lee Burke makes him both, and a frighteningly flawed human being at the same time.
Huge Advantage: Lee Burke
3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Tana French's novels have been well reviewed (from the praise she has recieved many will be shocked to see her in the 16th slot) but her books are very, very overrated. She takes too much time setting things up when a simple half page description would have been more than adequate. French's books rely however, on jaw dropping twists and for the most part she succeeds. The end of In the Woods was so unexpected that I had to re-read it several times before I fully grasped that she had, indeed, taken me there. However...here is my main complaint - in her original debute, she never solved the original mystery (that took place long before the books events). I have a major problem with this. French feels it is enough to have her character begin to emotionally heal from the traumatic experience, no! She needs to provide a genuine solution. Her meandering style should at least come to a strong conclusion, even with the twists and turns she takes. I tried to read French's books as fast as I could, not because they were page turners, but simply because I wanted to move on to something else.
Lee Burke often leaves unresolved threads in his novels as he incorporates mystical elements, but the reader always feels satisfied at the end. His books are page turners, and when he does twists (like in Heaven's Prisoner) he does them well. Lee Burke does not always have big game changers at the end of his novels, but rather small detonations throughout that reverberate long after he finishes writing. His style is untouchable, literary and so incredibly vivid that one does not read a Lee Burke novel but rather experiences it. You smell, taste, touch and hear everything in the book. Unlike French you do not skip passages, you devour them. Additionally, few authors have been better suited to write about a certain city than Lee Burke. He seamlessly weaves through the underbelly running through Lousiana and incorporates elements as diverse as neo-nazis, the best book ever on Hurricane Katrina and old school mafioso in the french quarter. Top that Tana French!
Advantage: Lee Burke
As expected it is a crushing, going away win for the master of New Orleans crime fiction.