Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

James Lee Burke and Swan Peak

When I read the description of this book on Amazon.com, I thought “haven’t I read this before? Dave Robicheaux and his buddy Clete go to Montana for a vacation?” but the description sounded like it was probably a new book and the copyright date was recent. I’ve been burned before – especially with Donna Leon books, where I order a book and discover I have already read it – it was published in England under one title and then – years later – in America, under a different title. That is so frustrating!

It arrived just as all the household goods arrived, so I had something to look forward to reading after the long, grueling days of toting and unwrapping, and putting away.

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Some of the reviewers say it’s just another James Lee Burke, same story, different setting, and, to some extent, they are correct. I would counter with my opinion that no matter which James Lee Burke story you are reading, there are moments of pure poetry, and moments of keenly cynical insights that lift any book he writes out of the ordinary and puts it in the can’t-live-my-life-without-reading-this-book catagory.

Dave and Clete are vacationing in Montana (Dave’s wife is there, too, but barely appears in this book). As usual, they find themselves peripherally involved with a couple killings, and are interviewing a witness, Jamie Sue Wellstone, wife of a transplanted-from-Texas oil tycoon.

The garden was dissected by gravel pathways and surrounded by a gray stone will that was stippled with lichen in the shade. The flower beds were planted with pansies, English roses that were as big as grapefruit, forget-me-nots, violets, clematis vine and bottlebrush trees. I wondered if the eclectic nature of the ornamentals in the garden said something about the undefined and perhaps deceptive nature of the Wellstones and their ability to acquire an entire culture as easily as writing a check.

In the following section, he writes about the drifters, the people who end up in places like Montana, Alaska – wherever there is still a laxity in formal structures:

The waddies and drifters who worked for him were the kind of men who were out of sync with both history and themselves, pushed further and further by technology and convention into remote corners where the nineteenth century was still visible in the glimmer of the high-ceilinged saloon or an elevated sidewalk that had tethering rings inset in the concrete or an all-night cafe that served steaks and spuds to railroad workers in the lee of a mountain bigger than the sky.

Most of them were honest men. When they got into trouble, it was usually minor and alcohol or women or both. They didn’t file tax returns or waste money on dentists. Many of them didn’t have last names, or at least last names they always spelled the same way. Some had only initials, and even friends who had known them on the drift for years never knew what the initials stood for. If they weren’t paid to be wranglers and ranch workers, most of them would do the work for free. If the couldn’t do it for free, most of them would pay to do it. When one of them called himself a rodeo bum, he wasn’t being humble.

Their enemies were predictability, politic, geographical permanence, formal religion, and any conversation at all about the harmful effects of vice on one’s health. The average waddie woke in the morning with a cigarette cough from hell and considered the Big C an occupational hazard, on the same level as clap and cirrhosis and getting bull hooked or stirrup-drug or flung like a rag doll into the boards. It was just a part of the ride. Anybody who could stay on a sunfishing bolt of lightning eight seconds to the buzzer had already dispensed with questions about mortality.

There are many who object to the violence and brutality in every James Lee Burke novel. The problem is, he is writing about people who have to deal with violence and brutality and a way of life most of us never see. Burke writes about cops, about gangsters and organized crime, and about prisoners and prison life. It isn’t pretty. His main characters in this book, Dave and Clete, have seen too much. They are cynical as only deep-dyed idealists can be cynical. They are the guardians of our society; the enforcers of the codes. Without the police, and those who fight with them against crime, it is the rule of the jungle, where might makes right. The bullies rule, and as we have seen through history, unlimited power invites abuse.

What all predators hated most was to be made accountable. It wasn’t death that they feared. Death was what they sought, onstage, with the attention of the world focused upon them. But when you took away their weapons and their instruments of bondage and torture, when you pulled the gloves off their hands and the mask off their face, every one of them was a pathetic child. They were terrified of their mother and became sycophantic around uniformed men. The fact they were reviled by other felons and that cops would not touch them without wearing polyethylene gloves was not lost on them.

But how do you get your hands on a guy who has probably been killing people for years, in several states, leaving no viable clues, threading his way in and out of normal society? How do you find a sadist who probably looks and acts just like your next-door neighbor?

Much later in the book, he describes the kind of hero that crops up in each book the same way:

But if there is a greater lesson in what occurred inside that clearing, it’s probably the simple fact that the real gladiators of the world are so humble in their origins and unremarkable in appearance that when we stand next to them in a grocery-store line, we never guess how brightly their souls can burn in the dark.

There is only one Dave Robicheaux book I have kept – A Morning for Flamingos, the first one I ever read. I’m pretty sure it was in the late 1980’s, and I have been a James Lee Burke addict ever since. James Lee Burke hates organized crime, and he hates most of all those criminals who make themselves wealthy by bribery and corruption, who attend the society balls and events, whose photos appear in the paper looking like you and me – like respectable folk. People who get photographed making a donation to charity with wealth stolen from the common purse. His heros – and heroines – are modern day gladiators, they are the bureaucrat who refuses to hide the illegal wiretaps, the plodding cops and FBI officers who track down the slightest clue to bring down the Madhoff and the white-collar robbers, the prosecutors who risk their lives to put the bad guys away.

I guess for me, reading James Lee Burke is like reading a fairy-tale (If you have ever read the original fairy-tales, you will know what true gruesome violence and brutality is all about!) where those who flout the law, those who oppress the poor, those who use their ill-gotten wealth to isolate themselves high above the common man – get their justice. They think they are above the law. They are wrong.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Crime, Detective/Mystery, Law and Order, Social Issues | 2 Comments