Sometimes we have a writer who is so good and so reliable that we forget exactly how amazing his prose can be. Perhaps he makes the bestseller lists, but rarely peaks at number one; or she never goes out of print, but the bookstore doesn’t carry those crucial first novels because they’re 20 years old. Then that writer crests with a new book that’s so clearly in his wheelhouse that you physically crave breaking out his old titles and letting his words wash over your brain. One such writer is James Lee Burke.
Burke is best known for his novels featuring Louisiana sometimes-detective Dave Robicheaux, and last year’s Katrina aftermath novel The Tin Roof Blowdown was arguably his best book. He follows it up with Swan Peak, which, unlike most continuity-light Burke titles, is actually something of a direct sequel to 1989’s Edgar Award-winning Black Cherry Blues. Robicheaux and most of his supporting cast travel to seemingly idyllic Montana for some R&R, but the machinations of a wealthy family and its sycophants, as well as the appearance of an escaped convict and the man tracking him, drive Dave and his Falstaffian partner Clete Purcel into action.
Burke has never written a bad book, though some have clearly been better than others, and at his best he transcends the mystery shelf where he is usually classified to become a Great American Voice. Especially soulful are Burke’s recent explorations into redemption, not only for his flawed protagonists but for at least some of the broken people who impede their path. Burke continues to meditate upon the heights and depths of the human impulses for good and evil and the complexities of his characters’ decisions, both epic and everyday, and we’re fortunate that he’s writing here and now with a vivid memory of an American landscape that fades by the hour.