James Lee Burke's Swan Peak

James Lee Burke, the bestselling author of Louisiana-based mysteries, grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. He majored in English and Journalism, later earning a Master of Arts in creative writing. Having worked as a lecturer, a labourer on offshore oil rigs, a social worker, a rancher, a clerk, and a news reporter, Burke came to fiction with wide-ranging experience in a variety of occupations. An acclaimed mystery writer, he recently won the coveted Grand Master Award. He has also garnered two Edgar awards for best mystery novels. Burke’s Dave Robicheau police detective series is highly popular with both readers and critics. These gritty, hard-boiled novels evoke place and depict character in a memorable and highly captivating way.

In Swan Peak, the seventeenth novel of the series, Detective Robicheaux, wife Molly, and friend Clete Purcell spend the summer holidaying in rural Montana. Staying at a friend’s ranch, Robicheaux and Purcell plan to fish and relax. Their vacation turns to work when two college students are found brutally murdered nearby. After the corpses of a second couple are discovered, a serial killer is suspected. Swan Peak is a novel that gradually unfolds as subplots mesh together.

There are a number of striking features about the book. The characters are psychologically complex and convincing. You will never forget the Wellstone brothers, Troyce Nix, Albert Hollister, or Candace Sweeney. Troyce’s development over the course of the novel is deeply affecting; few writers can show the restoration of a monstrous character in the convincing and powerful way that Burke does in this novel.

The dividing line between right and wrong, and good and bad is blurred in this novel. Wise characters like Albert Hollister have also been criminals. Others such as Jimmy Dale Greenwood were sent to prison for trying to defend the innocent. Clete Purcell – who won two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, and the Navy Cross – dropped a Teamster steward off a hotel balcony, filled a gangster’s luxury car with concrete, and hijacked an earth-grader from a construction site, driving it through the front of a criminal’s mansion (79).

The lives of both criminals and detectives have been profoundly influenced by experiences in the Vietnam war. Robicheaux acknowledges:
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. (259)
The legacy of war is an addiction to violence and brutality. Russell Celyn Jones (2008) writes in The Times, “Burke is one of the most lyrical of crime writers, his Cajun voice both seductive and brutal. If his books are violent, then so is America - in the form of its war machine and arms-dealing.”

The lives of Robicheaux and Purcell are shaped by the evil forces they have spent their lives fighting. Recurring nightmares and battles with alcoholism are by-products of their pasts and their jobs. They try to escape their demons by visiting Montana. But as Robicheaux admits,
I wanted to believe that somehow our journey into the northern Rockies, what some people call ‘the last good place,’ would take us back into a simpler, more innocent time. But trying to re-create the America of my youth through a geographical change was at best foolish, if not self-destructive. (59)
Concerned with tracing the roots of social problems, Burke presents a deeply moving, thought-provoking exploration of society’s failings. He tells the Sydney Morning Herald,
I think what has happened in the last 20 years is simply that what I would call the crime novel has replaced the sociological novel of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. That’s what’s happened. And the crime novel allows a novelist to look at society from the bottom up - that’s the only way we ever understand what’s going on in society at any given time.
Like Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke depicts the American landscape in a way that is simply unforgettable. Marilyn Stasio points out that “the rugged setting makes a grand stage for these battered characters, living ‘on the ragged edges of America,’ and slugging their way through this big, brawling novel.” Influenced by the Naturalists, Burke depicts character as an extension of setting, “melding character, story, and setting into a unified, evocative whole” (Ott 1996, 711).

Although Burke’s novels continue in the hard-boiled tradition, they do so with “a deeper, darker vision” (Coale 1997, 133). Stasio calls his crime novels “existential”; they are deeply disturbing and profoundly moving, dealing with not only murder mysteries but also the larger mysteries of society and existence itself.

Burke, James Lee. Swan Peak. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Coale, Samuel. “The Dark Domain of James Lee Burke: Mysteries within Mystery.” Clues 18, no. 1 (1997): 113-35.

Jones, Russell Celwyn. “James Lee Burke; The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Ott, Bill. “James Lee Burke.” Booklist 93, no. 8 (Dec 15, 1996): 711.