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Book Review: Swan Peak by James Lee Burke

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You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

I strongly urge you to drink of the waters of James Lee Burke. James Lee Burke is probably the finest writer on the face of this planet. I’ve led you to him. The rest is up to you.

Swan Peak begins with an innocent, poetic parable, as do most of Burke’s books. But it takes only a few pages to get into the meat of the story, with the good guys up against the bad guys, of which there seem to be many. Most of Burke’s books take place, or at least revolve around, New Orleans and Iberia Parish in Louisiana. Swan Peak, however, is mostly western Montana, which in reality is where Burke, the real Dave Robicheaux (the lead character in his books), spends a fair amount of time these days.

The mayhem in this book starts on page five, and doesn’t really end until … well, it doesn’t really end. The last pages of the book bring the current storyline to a close, but with Burke’s books, the end of the storyline is never the end of the story.

We know the lead character, Dave Robicheaux, all too well from many other cop/detective/spy books: Formerly a hard-drinking alcoholic who has a problem with walking the straight and narrow, with women, with men, and with working for idiots, dealing with idiots, or talking to idiots. Even just seeing idiots sets him off on occasion. But he’s also got the heart of gold (if a bit tarnished), a sense of fairness and justice that sometimes slows him down, and he most often gets his man, along with a dollop of justice for victims, although it may not be in the fashion of what PC America looks for.

Swan Peak takes place in the slowed-down, seemingly more peaceful Old West, where six-gun justice is more at home, even in the 21st century. All is not as it seems and the mayhem that starts on page five comes at you like a whirlwind. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the whirlwind’s direct path … you may still come away with skid marks showing. The characters are those we encounter in everyday life, whether in real life or when we watch/read/listen to the news. The usual ordinary people, the usual drunks, the usual petty criminals, the whiners and the Stoics. The usual.

How Burke writes is not your usual, though. He introduces characters you’ve never dreamed of, mixed in with the usual. He puts them into unusual situations and circumstances and, in this book in particular, you find yourself pulling for some of the “bad guys,” and “bad girls,” who might be a little rough around the edges, but aren’t nearly so bad as the real scumbags in the story.

I haven’t told you much about the book, and I really don’t intend to. It’s an experience you have to savor for yourself, at your own pace. Burke has about 20 books published. Go to your nearest library, or generous bookshop that will allow you to sit and read for a few minutes. Pick out any of Burke’s books and read any 25 pages. I think you’ll be hooked with his style, or his phrasing, or his plot, or with a character. Maybe you’ll be hooked with all the above.

Even if you don’t like crime/cop novels, even if you don’t like Louisiana, and even if you absolutely despise New Orleans, dive in anyway for a deeply satisfying ride. Once you read a book by James Lee Burke, chances are good that you’ll no longer be satisfied with your usual fare.

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About Lou Novacheck