In his latest novel, Swan Peak, James Lee Burke bears witness to a fact usually ignored by summer tourists in Montana (and sometimes, even, by Montanans themselves): that bad things actually do happen in the last best place. “I had wanted to believe,” says Dave Robicheaux, main character of Burke’s most popular mystery novels, “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.”
Famous last words.
Wishing to escape, if only for a time, post-Katrina Louisiana, private investigator Dave Robicheaux, along with his wife, a former nun named Molly, and Robicheaux’s best friend and partner in solving crimes, Clete Purcell, have come to Montana at the invitation of a friend (a novelist and retired English professor). Their intentions were to spend the summer on the professor’s land, just outside of Missoula, fishing the Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers. “But we would soon learn,” Robicheaux says, “that the state of Montana, with all its haunting beauty, would not provide a panacea for either of us.”
While trying to spend a couple of peaceful days fishing in the Swan River country, Purcell is accosted by two suspiciously invidious men who insist Purcell has turned onto a private road. They take down his plate number. They run his tags. And just as they’re about to look inside his maroon Cadillac, Purcell recognizes one of the men as having been a driver for Sally Dio, a mob boss Purcell had sabotaged and killed years before. Now the two men work for Ridley Wellstone, a Texas transplant and dangerous oil tycoon who lives at his property, Wellstone Ranch, with his brother, a former soldier viciously burned in a fire in the Sudan, and his brother’s wife, Jamie Sue, a glamorous ex-country singer.
Soon after Purcell’s encounter with Wellstone’s men, the brutalized bodies of two college students, who were last seen hiking the “M” trail behind the University of Montana, are found dead on Mount Sentinel. When the Missoula County sheriff (cutely dubbed Sheriff Higgins) begins his questioning, he starts with Robicheaux since the retired English prof’s land is just beyond the mountain ridge where the bodies were found. Eventually the sheriff enlists Robicheaux’s help. So much for that peaceful Montana getaway.
Like most of Burke’s Robicheaux novels, Swan Peak doesn’t stop at the main plot arterial. Rather, sub-plot is piled on top of subplot: one of Wellstone’s men is a former child molester, as is a local minister; a California couple (an ex-prostitute and her porn film producing boyfriend) are burned alive at a highway rest stop off I-90; Purcell’s past with Dio catches up with him as his sexual misadventures almost outdo his brushes with death. Meanwhile, as Robicheaux and Purcell puzzle out the mystery of the dead college students (all the while keeping a suspicious eye on the Wellstone Ranch), a vigilante gunbull at a contract prison in West Texas, who was a former MP at the Abu Ghraib Prison, drives out to Missoula with a young woman he meets along the way. In search of an escaped fugitive who’s desperately still in love with his ex-girlfriend and former singing partner, Jamie Sue Wellstone, the Texas gunbull finds himself questioning the same folks as Robicheaux and Purcell.
Unlike many detective novels, the sprouting sub-plots work in Swan Peak. Burke certainly accomplishes the necessary: He weaves the storylines together until they coalesce into one. To accomplish this, Burke concentrates on the inner lives of his characters, focusing primarily on the reasons why the grifter turns saintly and the gold-digger turns courageous. In this world, events—fortuitous and otherwise—don’t just happen, they are caused by the carefully delineated impulses of characters.
The only distraction comes when Burke’s prose turns labored and his point-of-view knocked out of balance. Often, particularly in the first third of the novel, he takes too long to set up scenes, hampered by an impulse for overwrought description. In one part, for instance, we’re reading the first-person narration of Robicheaux himself. At other parts, we switch to a limited third-person omniscience. There’s seldom any fluctuation in voice, stylistically giving the impression that all characters see the same way and think the same way.
At the novel’s core, however, is the illusion of place. More than many other writers, Burke draws out, astutely, the contradictions in landscape. Having written eloquently, more than once, in more than one genre, on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Burke is equipped as few writers are to envision both the lure of the Montana countryside, as well as the reality that looters, racists and ne’er-do-wells are just as likely to live in Missoula as anywhere else. “Trying to re-create the America of my youth through a geographical change,” admits Robicheaux soon after the novel’s opening, “was at best foolish, if not self-destructive.”
James Lee Burke reads from and signs copies of Swan Peak at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, July 16, at 7 PM.