James Lee Burke dwells in that rarified stratosphere with writers whose fans so anticipate the arrival of a new novel that they snap it up, sight unseen, the moment it hits the market. His writing is like a straight shot of single malt Scotch, or dark chocolate laced with Grand Marnier --- an acquired taste, fueling the imagination with a jolt to the system. Each new event in the life of Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux is a journey with a hero who has battled more dragons than St. George. Dave's legendary triumphs over the mafia, the degenerates and the saints of the mean streets of New Orleans, and the cops who are made up from both sides, are laid against his internal battles with alcoholism and personal loss. His lifelong best friend and former NOPD partner, Clete Purcell, battles his own inner demons with a heart that is even bigger than his hulking form.
Dave and Clete have survived the hell that was Katrina, so richly portrayed in Burke's last stunning novel, THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN. Along with Dave's ex-nun wife, Molly, they seek escape from the ravaged Louisiana coast to a friend's mountain ranch retreat in Montana. As they look forward to casting their lines in the trout streams on a relaxing getaway, their idyllic escape is shattered when two college kids are found brutally murdered on their host's ranch.
Dave reluctantly accepts a deputy's badge to aid local police in interviewing witnesses. When two tourists are savagely killed in a manner bearing similarities to the college students' deaths, the two veteran detectives see a pattern that the rural sheriff's department overlooks.
Dave and Clete, both veterans of Vietnam, harbor ghosts that are never laid to rest. Their reputation for violent and sometimes lurid events as New Orleans cops follows them no matter how far they roam, but they don't expect to find their vacation haunted by the ghost of an incident that occurred over 20 years earlier. As Clete drinks and brawls his way ever further on his self-destructive journey to hell and beyond, he manages to lumber into the midst of an FBI investigation. Sally Dio, a vicious New Orleans mob boss who was believed killed in a 1989 plane crash in Montana, remains the subject of a reopened FBI investigation. Clete was an early suspect in that long-ago plane crash, and his arrival on the scene two decades later is viewed with suspicion by the Feds.
SWAN PEAK, with its wild and woolly cast of country western singers, holy-roller evangelists and con men, grabs you aboard a whirlwind ride to a surprising plot twist at the end that will keep you turning pages into the wee hours.
Only James Lee Burke can weave a complex plot with so many disparate time frames and characters into a cohesive and brilliantly written novel. Our two heroes, both pushing their luck conducting police work at an age when most cops are either retired or dead, can still hold their own against bad guys of such monumental evil. Burke portrays raw human nature against the backdrop of a world gone slightly mad. To know Dave Robicheaux and the vivid characters who live in his world is to admire his strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. His fans are happy that the old boy still has the chops to keep up the good fight.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 23, 2011