Sunday, September 07, 2008

Swan Peak -- James Lee Burke

When you read a novel by James Lee Burke, you can be sure that the writing will be eloquent, the plotting will be all over the map, and the narration will switch between first and third person. It switches a lot in Swan Peak, and I'll tell you why that bothers me. It makes me wonder who's telling the story. I have no problem accepting a novel narrated in first person, but when the switches some fast and furious, I ask myself what's going on. Is Dave Robicheaux telling the story? It seems clear that he knows all the things in those sections, but there's simply no possible way he could know the things we're told in the third-person parts, not unless he's become omniscient. This probably doesn't bother anybody else, but it does bother me, and it has since Burke began doing it. Why doesn't he just switch to third person for the whole book?

In Swan Peak, Robicheaux, his wife, Molly, and Clete Purcel are in Montana on vacation. They don't get much R&R, as they're soon involved with multiple murders, people from their pasts (surprising how many of them turn up in Montana), TV preachers, escaped convicts, vengeful prison guards, and all kinds of things too numerous to mention. The book's long (400 pages), and there's a lot going on. Lots of violence, and plenty of Robicheaux's ruminations on the life he and Clete lead. It's all tied up in the end, I guess. I sort of lost track. Fine descriptive writing, as always. If you like Burke, you'll like this one. I don't know if it would be a good starting place for someone reading him for the first time, though.


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

We're seeing a lot more of this. Crais, John Connolly and Burke all switch back and forth from first to third person, and it drives me nuts.

Fred Blosser said...

I believe Dickens did the same thing sometimes, which confused me in college classes long ago when instructors said that writers should stick to one or the other, not use both. The practice doesn't bother me a lot. I would advise readers who want to try Burke to start with the first books in the series -- one, because I thought they were a little tighter than the later ones, and two, because they provide the backstories to the supporting characters.

Brian Drake said...

Could switching back and forth be a way for writers to pad their books to 400 pages? --Brian Drake