James Lee Burke, Swan Peak


When it comes to literate and violent motifs in a major detective series James Lee Burke has few peers. For more than two decades the Dave Robicheaux detective series has blossomed and each of the recent novels have been lauded by the critics. Burke is a major force in American crime. Here Dave and Clete go to Montana for a break after the events in New Orleans and become embroiled in another tense case. This edition contains an appreciation by the proprietor of Scorpion Press Michael Johnson.

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Following early attempts at literary fiction and a thriller issued by a university press James Lee Burke found a niche with the Dave Robicheaux detective novel Neon Rain (1987). It was this breakthrough that quickly earned him an Edgar for best mystery with Black Cherry Blues, his third novel in the series. This book, like the others in the series is about a deep feeling for the South, human dignity and redemption. What Burke brings to the genre is an emotional engagement; listen to this: “. . . I had found the edge. The place where you unstrap all your fastenings to the earth, to what you are what you have been, where you flame out on the edge of the spheres, and the sun and moon become eclipsed and the world below is as dead and remote and without interest as if it were glazed with ice. ”

Plotline from the publishers blurb: After the devastating events recounted in The Tin Roof Blowdown, Dave Robicheaux and his ex-partner in Homicide, Clete Purcel, head for the mountains and trout streams of Montana for some much-needed healing. However, while Montana might seem an unspoilt paradise peopled by men and women from an earlier, more innocent time in American history, Dave and Clete soon find that there are plenty of serpents in the garden too. The deaths of a couple of hikers suggest a perverted serial killer may be at work, while an escaped jailbird and his former tormentor are locked in a savage dance of revenge that is ultimately connected to the fortunes of a wealthy oil family hiding a terrible secret . . .

James Lee Burke has become the foremost American crime writer of his time. Although an entertainer Burke’s Robicheaux series (now extending to eighteen dense novels) marks out an outstanding achievement in creating a much followed flawed character with real depth and in extending the crime genre into areas of wider social concern.  The Tin Roof Blowdown got superb notices and so did Swan Peak (2008). Michael Johnson in his appreciation places Burke’s novels in the tradition of McCarthy (Border Trilogy) and McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and goes further by examining the apocalyptic feelings present in the dark side of America resulting from Vietnam angst post-Watergate trauma. Scorpion Press edition comprised 80 numbered and signed copies and a further and 16 lettered for presentation purposes.

5.00 out of 5

2 reviews for James Lee Burke, Swan Peak

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rating by Material Witness on May 30, 2012 :

    “As a general rule, I am not a great fan of picking established characters out of their natural habitat and plonking them down somewhere else. Too often the stories feel manufactured, false and somewhat self-indulgent on the author’s part. So it was with a little trepidation that I picked up James Lee Burke’s Swan Peak, which has taken Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel from their native Louisiana up to Montana for a spot of fishing. Burke has history in Montana, where he has set a series that for a time ran in parallel to the Robicheaux books and which never reached the same heights – for me anyway. But then Burke splits his own time between New Iberia, La. and Missoula – and so if he does, then why not Dave and Clete? Or perhaps after the heart-breaking The Tin Roof Blowdown, he just needed a break from Louisiana.
    Well, I should learn to have more faith. How often in the previous 16 Robicheaux novels has Burke let me down? Not often. And not here.
    Montana is a glorious setting for Dave and Clete’s peculiar brand of “relaxation”: it is wild, untamed, moody, magnificent and unpredictable. In this setting, Dave and Clete effectively play out the story of their lives: an inability to turn their back on injustice; an equivocal view of where the line between justice and injustice exists and their role (official or otherwise) in addressing it; and an inability to stay clear of trouble and violence.
    In a sense this entire series is as much, perhaps more, of an examination of the legacy of Vietnam in the young men who came back alive but damaged as it is an exploration of the dark side of modern American society. But in no Robicheaux book has that legacy ever been examined in as harsh and unforgiving a light as this one. And perhaps Burke had to take the Bobbsey Twins from homicide out of the Bayou to do that.
    Whatever the reason it has produced some of his most inspired writing, including this line that perhaps best captures the essence of 17 books: “For a lifetime, violence and the shedding of blood had been our addiction and bane. We had traded off our youth for Vietnam and had brought back a legacy of gall and vinegar that we could not rinse out of dreams. We had learned little from the past and were condemned to recommit most of its mistakes… What’s the point? You don’t have to drink alcohol to stay drunk.”
    This is the most psychological of all the Robicheaux books. The one seemingly most intent at getting inside the mind and asking why people do the terrible things they do, whoever they are.
    And it felt to me that the storyline was largely immaterial, except that it provided Burke with a huge window into the mind. Not that the storyline did not work. Yes, it was a stretch at some points to imagine even Cletus and Dave finding that much trouble a thousand miles from home, but not a big stretch. And the narrative of their investigation into the violent deaths of a couple of students in the hills above the property they are staying was typically well handled and satisfying to the last.
    But really, this book was about Dave and Cletus, and in that it was utterly magnificent and as compelling as anything Burke has written in his illustrious career. First class”. Material Witness website

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rating by The Guardian on May 30, 2012 :

    The Guardian, “After the devastating events of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Cajun police detective Dave Robicheaux and his unpredictable ex-partner Clete Purcel have headed for the achingly beautiful landscape of the Bitterroot Valley in Montana to fish. But Burke cannot allow these two characters to exist in a peaceful world, and it’s not long before they are embroiled in an investigation into the brutal killing of two young students a stone’s throw from their holiday cabins. As always, Clete Purcel is a natural magnet for trouble, and it comes in increasingly powerful waves. Burke has cunningly woven a thread through the various loops in the plot, and when he begins to draw it all in, the compression raises the temperature to almost unbearable levels. The last 30 pages had me gripped with tension. This, together with Burke’s ability to place you vicariously in the haunting landscapes he describes with such love and passion, again confirms his position as one of the finest American writers”.

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