Fishing in the Bitterroot Mountains in Western Montana sounds like heaven to Dave Robicheaux, his wife, Molly, and longtime pal Clete Purcel. Trying his luck in a pristine stream, Purcel is interrupted by two intimidating men who inform Clete that he is trespassing on private property. The problem: Clete refuses to be intimidated. Nevertheless, for the sake of peace, he quits the vast ranch belonging to Ridley Wellstone, a local multimillionaire with way too much clout in the community.
As Clete returns to the property of Albert Hollister, a retired English professor and believer in lost causes, where the New Orleans visitors are staying on their vacation, the same two thugs drive onto the property to add insult to injury, suggesting Purcel is spying on Wellstone’s land. Soon after, two college students are found brutally murdered, one on a hillside overlooking Hollister’s property.
Not to be hemmed in by a predictable plot, Burke threads his storyline through multiple characters and potential complications, more than the usual in a Dave Robicheaux novel. To that end, Swan Peak is one of Burke’s more elaborate works to date, an array of characters that represent the many faces of society - the good, the bad and the ugly - not always with a comfortable resolution.
Here is an assortment of amoral guns-for-hire; false preachers; big-hearted, hard-living women; a wealthy man whose face is as disfigured as his soul; a noble, stubborn old man; a powerful landowner with his own agenda; and a country singer turned religious revivalist whose poor marriage choice puts others at risk.
Add the volatile Clete and more-temperate-since-sober Robicheaux to the mix, and conflagrations are sure to occur. Burke dispenses with subtlety in this book; after all, monsters are his stock in trade. While the New Orleans friends battle their own demons - and they are significant - evil rampages through a pristine Montana: “What they were was much more difficult to describe than what they were not.”
Juggling such an unwieldy cast and predictable complications can defeat a lesser writer, but Burke builds his plot with attention to random forces, the element of chance, a bad guy gone good and the easy hatred of class distinctions, culminating in a spectacular conflagration: “The war was never between the classes, it was between the have-nots and the have-nots.”
Exploring every depravity known to mankind, Burke remains unintimidated by life’s brutality, opting instead for those odd transcendent moments when we rise to our better selves. Accepting Purcel with his positive qualities and his flaws, Robicheaux finds a certain peace in doing what he can to rectify the world, leaving the rest to others more qualified.
In sobriety, this protagonist has learned to stop tilting at windmills, content with the possibilities: “The faces of the actors may change, but the story is ongoing and neither religion nor government has ever rid the world of sin or snake oil.”