Review by Philip K. Jason
The publication of a new Dave Robicheaux novel is always a cause for celebration. This classic detective series is perhaps the best case to be made that no real distinction need exist between genre writing and literary writing. With The Glass Rainbow, the 18thRobicheaux installment, James Lee Burke is at the top of his form. Burke’s evocation of the sights, smells, sounds, and historical resonance of the Bayou Teche waterway and its queen city – New Iberia, Louisiana – once again reveals a master’s hand. Does any writer working today handle setting better? I doubt it.
Dave is found plying his inescapable trade in his unique way: dedicated lawman with a rogue streak. Continuing his tenuous position as detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department, he becomes involved in the investigation of what might be one of several serial murders of young women. However, this one doesn’t fit the pattern. The victim is not the typical runaway or risk taker, but rather a young black woman named Bernadette Latiolais who was preparing to enter the University of Louisiana’s Lafayette campus on a scholarship. Dave is urged to pay special attention to Bernadette’s case by her brother, an incarcerated lowlife who suggests that Dave pay a visit to a prosperous pimp and drug dealer named Herman Stanga.
Herman belongs to Burke’s gallery of self-satisfied agents of innate and thoroughgoing evil. Each is a piece of damaged goods with his (or her) own particular streak of cruelty and motive. The presence of evil is very real to Dave Robicheaux and his creator, and its manifestations are drawn in gruesome psychological and behavioral detail.
The investigation casts some suspicion on novelist Kermit Abelard, grandson of a fading local patrician, and his very good friend, Robert Weingart, an ex-con with a best-selling memoir. Dave knows that the Abelard fortune is based in large part on dirty dealings. Kermit, it turns out, is connected to an organization that funded Bernadette’s scholarship – but he at first denies knowing her.
An additional, yet emotionally explosive, complication is the fact that Dave’s daughter Alafair, a law student and aspiring novelist, has been drawn into Kermit’s orbit. The relationship has become quite close, and Dave is extremely worried about it. His instincts tell him that Kermit and his ex-con friend are corrupt users in one way or another. It turns out that he’s right, but Alafair takes too long to accept his judgment. Once again, Dave’s family is threatened through the blowback of his job and his way of doing it.
One likely motive for Bernadette’s murder has to do with property she inherited that is desired for a lucrative land deal involving the biofuel industry. The details remain hazy, but the deal smells really bad. As the novel progresses, the investigative broom sweeps in a larger and larger cast of characters, including self-made but shady Layton Blanchet, his gorgeous and malicious wife Carolyn, an unstable female deputy sheriff, and eventually a para-military team of soldiers of fortune.
Early on, Dave’s long time best buddy and freelance investigative partner Clete Purcel is brought into the picture. Readers who have known Clete through the many Robicheaux novels will be thrilled to meet him again in all his beefy, alcoholic splendor. A man for whom violence is as addictive as booze, Clete is still the soul of loyalty. The relationship brings out the best – and sometimes the worst – in both men, now aging figures acutely conscious of time’s passage. Burke’s representation of the tainted seams of American culture that they inhabit and brood upon opens up those cultural strains with remarkable, unrivaled effectiveness.
Brilliantly paced, brimming with memorable characters (some of which can haunt your dreams), intriguingly nuanced, captivating in its sensory detail, and with a challenging moral vision, The Glass Rainbow succeeds on many levels to solidify and even advance James Lee Burke’s already prominent position in contemporary American letters.