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Bayou detective goes Big Sky

Swan Peak A Dave Robicheaux Novel James Lee Burke Simon & Schuster: 402 pp., $25.95

July 19, 2008|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Special to The Times

Every year about this time, I eagerly await the latest novel from the pen of James Lee Burke, and if I'm lucky, it will be an adventure featuring the New Iberia, La., deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux, for my money the best continuing American character today, a counterpart on these shores to Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard, the masterful creation of the incomparable P.D. James.

As writers of crime fiction, Burke and James are a cut above the competition because both transcend the artistic boundaries of the genre and, as entertainers, they always manage to please. "Swan Peak," the 17th installment in the Robicheaux series and Burke's 29th book since "Half of Paradise" in 1965, is another triumph for the two-time Edgar Award winner.

Dave Robicheaux made his first appearance in 1987 in "Neon Rain"; in the 21 years since then, we've mourned with him the untimely loss of two wives; rejoiced at the development of his adopted daughter Alafair; vicariously enjoyed his friendship with the ferociously loyal Clete Purcell, whose tie dates back to when both were no-nonsense cops in the "Big Sleazy," their affectionate nickname for New Orleans.

Like his signature character, the author has a strong Bayou background, attends Mass regularly and has successfully battled alcoholism through 12-step programs. Burke allows his personal views on the state of the world and where it is headed to enter the discourse, but never at the expense of plot or character. The devastating impact that hurricanes Katrina and Rita had on New Orleans, for instance, and the inept government response, was the unsettling back story last year for "The Tin Roof Blowdown," an experience so traumatic that Burke chose western Montana for the setting of "Swan Peak."

The Gulf Coast might seem a world apart from the Bitterroot Valley, but Burke aficionados know that he maintains homes in both places. The transition from the Deep South to Big Sky Country is no problem for an author who relies so heavily on atmosphere and nuance. As the novel opens, Dave, his third wife Molly -- a former nun in El Salvador -- and Clete are taking it easy as ranch guests of Albert Hollister, an eccentric English professor and writer who first appeared in one of Burke's short stories.

For Clete -- who "saw the city of New Orleans sink beneath the waves, just like Atlantis" -- a summer of fishing in paradise is a way to escape the many bad dreams that haunt his nights. But the shocking murder of two college students, one of them on a hilltop adjoining the Hollister property, changes everything. Dave accepts an invitation from the local sheriff to assist the investigation, and Clete is drawn in after an encounter with thugs working for Ridley Wellstone, a shady oil speculator who schemes to drill in the pristine wilderness. Ever more curious, the tough guys once worked for the vicious mobster Sally Dio, who supposedly died in a private airplane accident after Clete poured sand in his gas tank, which we remember from "Black Cherry Blues" (1989).

A master at developing parallel plots, Burke has fashioned no fewer than four converging stories in "Swan Peak." Wellstone's dangerously obnoxious brother is married to Jamie Lee Wellstone, a former country singer who has a steamy fling with Clete. Meanwhile, Jimmy Dale Greenwood, Jamie Lee's former musical partner who has been jailed in Texas for a crime he didn't commit, escapes an abusive prison guard and heads for Montana, the furious guard in hot pursuit.

Sin, redemption and dealing with inner demons, staple themes in every Burke novel, confront these principals and will, undoubtedly, consume them for the foreseeable future, as Dave suggests in a closing comment about a trip he makes to the Northwest after all the dust has settled: "I didn't know why I was there. Maybe it was because of the clean smell of the air, the boulders encrusted with the skeletons of hellgrammites in the creek beds, the bluish-white outline of the Cascades themselves, the autumnal suggestion of death on the wind, followed by winter and, with good luck, another spring."

We don't know Dave's age, but given the nightmares that still torment him from his combat tour in Vietnam -- along with the fact that he lives in real time -- it's no stretch to place him well into his 60s, which means he ought to be slowing down by now. This may explain why Burke has introduced another series with a much younger character, the former Texas Ranger-turned-lawyer Billy Bob Holland, who, not surprisingly, calls Montana his home. But since so much of Dave's appeal comes with the knowledge that a lot of water has passed beneath the keel -- and that he is so much wiser for it -- the odds are he'll be with us for a good time to come.


Nicholas A. Basbanes' latest book, "A World of Letters," will be published by Yale University Press in October.

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