Swan Peak, by James Lee Burke *****

Swan PeakThis series began decades ago, when Dave Robicheaux and his best friend and cop partner, Cletus Purcel, were in their prime. Now they are much older, aging along with their creator, the legendary James Lee Burke. Robicheaux is happily married to Molly, a strong, loving woman who can deal with the harsh twists and turns that Dave’s life metes out. Clete continues to be drawn toward women with “disaster, stay away” stamped on their foreheads. It’s nice to know there are some things the reader can depend upon.
Just as the author divides his time between Montana and New Iberia, Louisiana, so does Dave, and this installation is set in Montana. Dave, Molly and Clete are on vacation, staying with friends, but Clete drives headlong into trouble, for once not of his own making, almost immediately. The local cops aren’t entirely sympathetic, nor are the Feds, all of whom know that he has a suspicious history in the area; he may be connected to a flaming plane that took down a nasty mobster and some of his entourage, a crash that may not have been accidental. Nobody has ever proven anything, but the presumption of innocence doesn’t apply to the attitudes that people take. It’s unfortunate, since Clete will need all the help he can get in this one:

Clete Purcel had given up on sleep, at least since he had been sapped with a blackjack,
wrist-cuffed to the base of a pine tree, and forced to hear a machine dig his grave out
of a hillside. He kept his nightlight on and his piece under his pillow and slept in fitful
increments. The trick was not to set the bar too high. If you thought of sleep in terms
of minutes rather than hours, you could always keep ahead of the game.

Yes, friends, there is trouble to spare on this vacation-from-hell, the bevy of frustrated wanna-be artists, corrupt wealthy baddies, and women with miserable pasts and questionable futures to whom Cletus is invariably drawn, moth to candle flame, that we have come to expect from a colorful, adrenaline packed story like the ones Burke spins when he writes this series.
But not all is rotten and wrong. Dave and Molly are fonder and more loving than ever as they grow older together. The protagonist explains that

There are occasions in this world when you’re allowed to step inside a sonnet,
when clocks stop, and you don’t worry about time’s winged chariot and hands
that beckon to you from the shadows.

Is the man with the half-melted face someone associated with Sally Dio? Is he Dio himself? Or is he merely a disabled man with a deeply flawed character?
Who killed those teenagers?
To find out, you need to get a copy of this wonderful book, but if you haven’t read the rest of the series, I recommend reading them in sequence. Because nobody writes better than Burke.