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on 9 July 2008
James Lee Burke's latest novel, Swan Peak, is another chapter in the life of his troubled character Dave Robicheaux. It is set in the wilds of Montana rather than the lush lands of Louisiana. An early novel, Black Cherry Blues was similarly set against the Montana backdrop of mountains and grazing land.
This time Dave and his friend Cletus Purcell are ostensibly taking a well earned break from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. At one point Dave reflects, in a beautifully constructed paragraph, of how the intersections in his life seem practically predetermined as is the attraction of iron filings for a magnet. There is a sense of evil in the first few pages as Clete is bullied by some unpleasant characters who move him off the territory of a rich landowner. It is surely a craft of very few authors to write so infectiously and to create such a sense of bad things to come as does James Lee Burke.
The story is set around the rich landowner and some gruesome killings in the same area. It has, rather like an airliner, a smooth and progressive glide slope to a climax rather than a landing. As a reader one is drawn and even captivated by each turn of the screw.
Woven into this story are some old and some new characters along with just a hint of romance. One or two descriptions of the Montana environment are reminiscent of early Lee Burke writing about Louisiana and I have to say I wish there were more of these.
Quite where Lee Burke gets his material from is a mystery but how he creates such an art from whatever the source is very impressive. It is, yet again, a great read and I'm glad to say the author still retains those qualities of writing that attracted me to the Robicheaux novels all those years ago.
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on 13 September 2008
This is the first Dave Robicheaux novel since `Black Cherry Blues' to take the deputy sheriff out of his home state of Louisiana (laid to waste after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) and into the mid-west farmlands of Montana. Not coincidentally, these are also the two states that James Lee Burke calls his home. Here Robicheaux is enjoying a trip with his wife Molly and big buddy Cletus Purcell, where they're ranch house guests of Robicheux's friend Albert Hollister - a retired English professor and writer.

Virtually from page one - which depicts Purcell doing a spot of solo fishing - there's trouble. Two employees of Ridley Wellstone, an extremely rich Texan oil man who has relocated to Montana, inform Purcell he's on private land, insult him, break his fishing rod (a VERY bad idea) and chase him.

From there the action kicks off as Robicheaux and Purcell become entangled in events at Wellstone's mansion - which he shares with his badly burnt brother Lesley and Lesley's wife Jamie Sue - and the search for a serial killer.

In a parallel plot, 6ft 5in prison guard Troyce Nix violently sodomises country singer Jimmy Dale Greenwood, a prisoner in his care, and pushes this gentle guy into attacking him with a homemade shiv. Nix is badly injured but recovers after a short spell in hospital. He then pursues his attacker, accompanied by a lady friend he picks-up along the way. His pursuit of Greenwood becomes inextricably linked with the Robicheaux/Wellstone story, and there's a crossover of characters into both plotlines that Burke controls brilliantly.

`Swan Peak' is the seventeenth novel in the series and displays all the strengths and weaknesses of the best of the books.

The strengths? The sheer impassioned poetry of the writing and the vividly described locales; the action scenes of measured brutality; the finely nuanced language and expertly developed sub-plots (even if they're the SAME ones he recycles, novel after novel!) If you've never read Mr Burke before you'll be stunned by the literacy on display: this is very powerful stuff.

The weaknesses? EVERY James Lee Burke character whether they are rich or poor, intellectual or uneducated, speaks in exactly the same way: the same cadences, the same tone and intonation. And each one delivers virtually identical, perfectly articulated insults. I am also a little tired of his predilection for peopling his books with strange-looking or deformed men.

Furthermore, every book has Robicheux describing a character as a `psychopath' virtually upon meeting them, and we are expected to share his snap assessment even though we've been presented with NO evidence to back it up at this stage.

But lets not dwell too long upon the faults, these are easily outweighed by Mr Burke's formidable writing gifts.

The events of 'Swan Peak' take place in a mythical America, and although the setting is contemporary, the action and dialogue could easily have taken place in the 1930s or in any decade between then and now. Some of the slang: button men, 'diming' is also outdated and a little quaint.

As usual, Clete Purcell (an ex-NOPD cop) is more violent than most of the baddies and is like a straining pit-bull on a leash. It takes a few measured words from Robicheaux to calm him down, and even then they don't always work. Both men are Vietnam vets, and are still visited by demons created from the horrors they've witnessed. These are very complex guys, and sometimes the line between good and evil is more than a little blurred. This is also the case with Troyce Nix - the most psychologically interesting character the author has created in a long while.

Lee Burke keeps everything in focus here and his mastery of situation and plot is never in doubt - and he delivers a quite fantastic ending. Even after acknowledging his weaknesses he is still palpably one of the greats of modern crime fiction. I can recommend this to fans and those who fancy trying `something different' for a change. Not quite the best book in the series, I award this 4.5 stars.
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Consider Swan Peak a taut Dave Robicheaux thriller about bringing down the bad guys transferred from Katrina-depleted Louisiana to sparking Montana. Since Louisiana is usually the major character in this series' books, that shift cuts down the local color by one star.

Are there sleazy people in Montana? They seem to be everywhere that Dave and Clete Purcell look.

Dave and Molly have left Louisiana to recover from Katrina, and Clete has joined them. Naturally, it doesn't take much for Clete to begin stirring things up. In this case, a choice of campground begins an escalating conflict that no one seems to be able to or wants to avoid.

Pretty soon bodies are piling up around Dave and Clete, but it's not clear what the motives are. Both with and without encouragement, Dave begins investigating. That search draws them both into the business of the local, reclusive rich who want to drill for oil and gas and make lots of money through evangelism. It's an odd group of people, and the closer you look . . . the odder it gets.

In a related story line, a convict looks to do his time and get out . . . but a gun bull has other ideas.

The book's main weakness is that James Lee Burke often tells rather than shows what's going on. At times, you'll feel like you are in a lecture hall rather than reading an engrossing book.

As usual, the story has more slime in it than ten usual murder mysteries. But overcoming the slime is part of the appeal of this series so I'm sure you know what to expect.
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VINE VOICEon 21 May 2011
I took a breather from Dave Robicheaux after Hurricane Katrina wiped out his homeland, returning now a year or two after this was published. He's moved to Montana, albeit on holiday, a completely different environment from New Orleans and all that went on there.

For me this doesn't work too well. Yes, the author writes evocatively, his settings are brilliant but his two main characters seem to be out of kilter from what we have come to expect.

Maybe it's the mountain air but I think I prefer Robicheax and Purcell to be doing their thing in the old country. Hopefull, next time round, they will.

It's a good story, the connection between the brutal murder of two college students, two supposed mega rich and eccentic brothers, then add in some really strange characters almost as a seondary story as a prison guard hunts down a Country singer, it all takes a bit of sorting out. Needless to say, it does all come together but there is so much going on that our main men are almost sidelined; which is basically my point. Robicheaux and Purcell do not feature so prominently and, as in the previous books, it is these two who make James Lee Burke's books so fascinating.

I wish Amazon would amend their scoring system because 3 stars is too low but 4 is too high for this one.
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on 2 October 2008
Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell are their usual selves in James Lee Burke's latest novel, but they seem spread too thin against the landscape of Montana: I look forward to their return to the claustrophobic and humid parish of New Iberia.
Swann Peak is Burke's most uneven novel for some time. The characters are as vivid and morally ambivalent as always, but much as I wanted the plot twists to be sublime, they were too often ridiculous.
I'm left with the impression perhaps of a tired author who is drawing breath after the remarkable Tin Roof Blowdown; and certainly of an author who is capable of much better.
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This is another in the series of crime novels featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux and his former partner Clete Purcel, but this one is located not in their usual haunt of urban New Orleans, but in the mountains of rural Montana, where the pair have come for what they had planned to be a quiet fishing holiday. The idea seems to be partly to provide a period of calm for Clete to come to terms with the many violence episodes in his past, including possibly causing the death of a notorious vicious Nevada gangster with the improbably name of Sally Dio. Of course it is wishful thinking, and not long after their arrival they are asked by the local sheriff to help him investigate the sadistic murders of a young student couple, and later a producer of porn movies and his girlfriend.

The investigation revolves around the two very wealthy Wellstone brothers and their entourage of psychopathic minders, who Dave believes are at the heart of corruption in the area. There is a long list of other colourful characters: Jamie Sue Wellstow, a young former country singer and now the wife of one of the brothers; her former lover and singer Jimmy Dale Greenwood, now an escaped convict; he is on the run after having stabbed a prison guard Troyce Nix who violently sodomised him when he was in jail; Troyce is now seeking revenge and pursuing Jimmy, accompanied by a new girlfriend Candace; a corrupt predatory Pentecostal preacher called Sonny Click, and many others. The story is a very complex one, but all the various sub-plots are eventually drawn together in a satisfactory conclusion where the good guys come out on top and the evil-doers are brought to justice (or killed).

There are some unbelievable parts of the plot. For example, a young beautiful `self-confessed' lesbian FBI agent goes to bed with the elderly, overweight Clete very shortly after she meets him; and the remarkable coincidence of Clete's past involving Sally Dio catching up with him in the wilds of Montana. But these are relatively minor criticisms.

It is difficult to keep things fresh through 17 novels with the same central characters and it shows in this book. The repeated attempts by Dave to straighten out Clete and to get him to control his many demons, are getting rather repetitious, and the dialogues are somewhat unchanged. Nevertheless, the fast-moving plot, with its measure brutality, keeps the reader engaged and entertained, and the descriptions of the Montana countryside are excellent. Also, although the outcome of the climax is obvious, exactly how it comes about is not, and holds the reader until the end. This is perhaps not the very best of Burke's thrillers, but still better than most writers achieve.
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on 8 November 2012
A few spoilers below!

Blurb........Detective Dave Robicheaux returns in another adventure. Only this time, he travels from New Iberia Parish to the wilds of Montana. Swan Peak is the sequel to Black Cherry Blues, the third title in the Robicheaux series. In it, Clete Purcel has to confront ghosts from his past, namely the fact he poured sand in the fuel tanks of an airplane owned by Sally Dio, resulting supposedly in Dio's death. The story also deals with Jimmy Dale Greenwood, an escaped convict who was at one time a fairly famous country singer. His lover is Jamie Sue Wellstone, now the wife of one of the richest men in the West.

The larger story deals with country music, the use of fraudulent ministries to garner support for nefarious political enterprises, and two brothers who are the sons of the most famous wildcatter in Texas oil history. Perhaps the most striking character, however, is an ex-Miami roller derby queen by the name of Candace Sweeney. Her lover is a Texas gunbull who was a guard at Abu Ghraib Prison.

Few authors can tell a story quite like James Lee Burke. He deftly combines intricate, engaging plotlines and original, compelling characters with his uniquely graceful prose. Burke transcends genre yet again in his latest thrilling addition to the Robicheaux series.

I first discovered James Lee Burke in the early 90's when I came across The Neon Rain, Heaven's Prisoners and Black Cherry Blues. He absolutely blew me away with the quality of his writing, and his double act of recovering alcoholic Dave Robicheaux and colourful sidekick Clete Purcell.

His full bibliography is as follows;

Hackberry Holland
1. Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971)
2. Rain Gods (2009)
3. Feast Day of Fools (2011)

Robicheaux
1. The Neon Rain (1987)
2. Heaven's Prisoners (1988)
3. Black Cherry Blues (1989)
4. A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
5. A Stained White Radiance (1992)
6. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
7. Dixie City Jam (1994)
8. Burning Angel (1995)
9. Cadillac Jukebox (1995)
10. Sunset Limited (1998)
11. Purple Cane Road (2000)
12. Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002)
13. Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
14. Crusader's Cross (2005)
15. Pegasus Descending (2006)
16. The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)
17. Swan Peak (2008)
18. The Glass Rainbow (2010)
19. Creole Belle (2012)

Billy Bob Holland
1. Cimarron Rose (1997)
2. Heartwood (1999)
3. Bitterroot (2001)
4. In The Moon of Red Ponies (2004)

Novels
Half of Paradise (1965)
To The Bright and Shining Sun (1970)
Two for Texas (1982)
aka Sabine Spring
The Lost Get Back Boogie (1986)
White Doves at Morning (2002)

Collections
The Convict: And Other Stories (1985)
Jesus Out to Sea (2007)

Since then I've fallen in and out of love with the three of them several times in the last 20 years. Does the quality of the man's prose outweigh the sheer improbability that after 20 years the self-proclaimed Bobbsey Twins would still be busting heads and taking down the bad guys?

Dave and his constant quest for justice, whilst battling his demons and attempting to keep a reign on Clete has just got tiresome for this reader. JLB's books seem to have an underlying narrative that rich people and big business are invariably bad, evil and corrupt, which may be true occasionally, but which after the best part of 30-odd books becomes stale and repetiticious.

In Swan Peak the quality of the writing is as good as ever, with convincingly written flashpoints and lyrical depictions of the Montana countryside.

The downside for me was, after the predictability of the outcome which is fairly inevitable, that the plot was implausible. With over 147,000 square miles of Montana countryside to vacation and fish in, the dynamic duo happen to pitch up in the same neck of the woods as Sally Dio? Unlikely! Vindictive, sociopath Dio gives Purcell a free pass for years until such time as they cross paths? Unbelievable.

Most of the time, I read crime fiction for entertainment, and in truth I was entertained. Most times when following a series with a strong lead character there appears to be a formula to the writing which is often tolerable, but I think I'm done with JLB now though. I think this series has gone on for a few too many books now and though the author is no guiltier of milking this particular cash-cow than many others in the genre, I'm off to pastures new.

This copy was acquired second-hand from Oxfam books in Leighton Buzzard.

3 from 5
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Dave Robicheaux and his friend (and ex-colleague) are on vacation in Montana when some murders occur and Dave is assigned temporarily to the local Sheriff's staff. In the meantime Clete is obsessed with Jamie Sue Wellstone - an ex-Country and Western singer now married to a scarred war veteran. The wealthy Wellstone family have a ranch and some shady connections and are hoping to search for oil on their land.

The plot is fairly convoluted but what makes this book so great is the richness of the characters and the way in which they interact. Sometimes Clete must feel like a weight around Dave's neck but he is continually loyal to his troubled friend. The bad guys are really bad but in the end no match for Dave and Clete.

Swan Peak has some lovely writing - and is sprinkled ideas: "...we love the earth but we don't get to stay" or "Never go to bed with a woman who has more problems than you".

There were a few bits of plotting that bothered me. Firstly, J.D. escaped from gaol and took refuge with Albert Hollister. He was miles from home - so where did he get his guitar from? Also I thought that Troyce Nix talked a bit too readily to Candace about his problems and his past transgressions. Seemed a bit unlikely.

But once again, Dave Robicheaux is the person to have on your side. And he makes great picnics!
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on 12 January 2011
I'm such a fan of Burke's Robicheaux books that a year ago I re-read the first 16 in the order they'd been published (mixed with other books in between) and was struck that he'd been able to keep up such a high standard throughout. Most authors understandably tail off when they've used the same characters in more than 10 or 12 books.
But Swan Peak is a book too far and it's time for Burke to turn to other characters. His handling of Cleate has long stretched the reader's patience but in Swan Peak he's ridiculous. Would a young self-confessed FBI lesbian fall into bed with a 60 year old drunken slob and ride off into the sunshine with him? I thought that Cleate was going to be killed off (at last) but Burke can't resist saving him - and all the other characters except the chief villains.
The book is too long and sometimes rambles when the author drops in bits of personal pontification, whilst the Montana setting constantly reminds one of James Crumley, perhaps the finest US crime-writer of the past 50 years.
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VINE VOICEon 26 July 2009
I would probably give any James Lee Burke novel a minimum of 4 stars because he is such a skilled writer. His ability to create a wonderfully atmospheric context for his stories is probably better than any other American crime writer (or other nationality come to that). I think it was always going to be a challenge to better the previous novel in the series which focused on murder amid the chaos of hurricane Katrina (The Tin Roof Blowdown). This may be the reason why this novel is set away from New Orleans. His prose is as good as ever and you do get drawn into the characters (always a strong feature of his writing). My only criticism is that the ending felt a little too rushed. As ever a very satisfying read.
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